Oculus Rift and the renunciation of the mass market – editorial

After years of waiting and speculation, we finally know the price of Oculus Rift: the new virtual reality helmet is available for preorder on the official website, with a price tag set at $ 599 for the United States and even € 699 for those who buy. from Europe (to which we must add substantial shipping costs, for about 40 additional euros).

This is undoubtedly a nasty surprise for gaming and technology enthusiasts in general, a jolt that significantly alters the market possibilities of this interesting technological device. Obviously the infallible sibyls of the next day have already been unleashed on the forums all over the world, ruling that such a price was “obvious” right away and that anyone who imagined the opposite was only an “illusion”. The fact is that it was the parent company itself that, over the years, made people understand something very different through its official communication.

In September 2014, for example, Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus) had suggested that the price of the Rift would be between 200 and 400 dollars. Clearly, many things may have changed from 2014 to today, but even at the end of 2015 Luckey had reiterated very similar intentions, stating that Rift would cost “more than $ 350”, but a not too distant figure.

$ 599 is the exact same amount that caused so much trouble for Sony’s PlayStation 3. We hope things turn out differently for the Oculus Rift.

It is therefore normal that certain price expectations had been created and that the Rift was surrounded by a relatively affordable commercial product aura, which more or less all technology enthusiasts and willing early adopters could have afforded immediately. Those hopes have been shattered against an unexpected price tag of $ 599, curiously the same amount that cost PlayStation 3 the outrage of fans, as well as a very problematic launch and years of subsequent sacrifices to return to a positive market situation.

Such a price, for an “accessory” technology device (which requires other hardware to function), constitutes in itself an affirmation of renunciation of the mass market. Clearly no one imagined that a radically innovative product like Oculus Rift could immediately take root in the large generalist market: even at $ 350 it would have been too expensive, the experience it offers is still viewed with distrust by many, the PC needed to run the VR titles is much more expensive than the Rift itself (the recommended GPU is a GTX 970 and costs around 300 euros). But even in the face of this situation, which automatically condemned VR to having an “elite” audience in its first years on the market, a price of $ 599 appears to be a further and major potential limitation to the diffusion of the Rift.

Virtual Reality is still seen this way: an alienating experience, for clumsy nerds. To overturn this perception, a lot of work and many good choices will be required.

The disappointment and the surprise double when you consider that in March 2014 Oculus was bought by none other than Facebook. The entry on the scene of such a technological and financial giant had been seen by many as the definitive confirmation that the ambitions of Rift would immediately be those of conquering a wide and universal audience, even at the cost of selling the initial units at a loss. , to get the platform to establish itself more quickly (a tactic console builders know well). This view was also reaffirmed by Zuckerberg’s own statements that Rift “has to sell 50-100 million units to make sense”.

Without wanting to judge Zuckerberg’s business plans, who certainly showed some entrepreneurial talent, I struggle to imagine a short or medium-term future in which a $ 599 VR helmet can place 50 million units. Of course, every day we buy phones that cost even more, but the comparison that I have already seen made a little everywhere is inappropriate, for various reasons.

The smartphone, for example, in addition to being a product of technology has also become an object of desire and a status symbol among the most representative of today’s times. VR, on the other hand, finds itself in the diametrically opposite situation: it will have to fight hard to overturn the negative image and uncool that currently surrounds it. It is the same problem that, together with various other contributing causes, led to the archiving of the first Google Glass project (surrounded by a perception so negative on a social level that it generated the shrewd but unflattering term “glasshole”).

In short, Oculus and Facebook would need the quick support of all the techno-nerds willing to launch unscrupulously in the adoption of a new technology yet to be verified: ideally, they would have to “explain” it to a rest of the world that is still very suspicious. , through an enormous work of spontaneous evangelization. In the absence of such a virtuous circle, the strength of marketing alone is unlikely to persuade those 50-100 million individuals identified as a minimum target by Zuckerberg to embrace VR, especially at these costs.

The Oculus Rift ‘launch kit’ will also include an Xbox One pad. Was it really needed, or could it be done without to reduce costs?

Today’s question, therefore, is: how many of those nerds willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of early adoption until yesterday are so even now that the official price of the Rift has been communicated? My suspicion is that $ 599 / € 699 is too much, not only for the vast majority of the mass market but also for those who would not have disdained the day one purchase of a Rift at $ 399. Having discarded the latter, what is the residual target? Will the enthusiastic and wealthy ultra-nerds (an infinitesimal segment of the tech and gaming audience) be enough to support the commercial launch of VR?

Clearly none of us are able to judge the technology in the Rift in terms of costs, declaring its intrinsically “excessive” price, but it is still worth making some evaluations on the commercial choices of Oculus and Facebook. The first is: why force us to buy an Xbox One pad with the Rift too? Many of us already have one, the others could have bought it separately, and by excluding it from the package the price would certainly have dropped.

Then: why the obvious discrepancy between the American and the European price, “inflated” by 100 euros? It’s okay that American prices exclude VAT but luckily it’s rare to see them converted so much upward on the European market: the PS4, for example, costs $ 349 and € 349.

How will PlayStation VR and HTC Vive respond to the Rift price? Will all the first helmets for Virtual Reality be very expensive toys for a small audience, or are some surprises awaiting us?

Finally: do we really have to pay an additional 40 euros for shipping for a product that already costs 700? Facebook does not seem willing to meet us even a little, we will see how much the market will be willing to meet it.

The last consideration is perhaps the most disturbing: by announcing such an ambitious price, Oculus has given the field open to the competition, which from today can certainly feel more relaxed. It is to be hoped, for example, that PlayStation VR does not take the leap to adjust its price upwards, which has not yet been officially announced. After all, it will be enough to cost a hundred dollars less than the Rift to still be the “cheapest on the market” high-end VR headset, with all due respect to those hoping for a Virtual Reality below 400 euros.

In short, the announcement of the price of Oculus Rift is a crucial moment for the future of VR. From today, the challenge of penetrating the market, even only in the segment of high-end technology and gaming enthusiasts, is significantly more ambitious and complicated. We will discover over the next few months what will be the moves that Facebook has in mind to complete it (we do not doubt that there will be surprises), and we await with anxiety and curiosity to see the answer that Sony will be able to give with its PlayStation VR, without forgetting the Vive project by HTC / Valve.