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It's Official: There Are Too Many Virtual Reality Headsets

And most of them aren't even out yet.

Eric Johnson for Re/code

When Oculus VR raised nearly $2.5 million on Kickstarter in 2012, it was exciting: Virtual reality, a technology long presumed dead, was back! In the ensuing months, and then years, the company made big technological strides, beefed up its team and got acquired by Facebook for $2 billion.

Despite its crucial role in reigniting interest in VR, Facebook/Oculus is now just one in a sea of virtual reality companies.

Facebook continues to develop the Oculus Rift; Sony is developing Project Morpheus for the PlayStation 4; Google spurred a cottage industry of low-cost VR headsets with Cardboard VR; Samsung partnered with Oculus to release the smartphone-powered Gear VR, which is now two headsets; Razer is pushing an open standard for future VR software with OSVR; HTC and PC gaming giant Valve announced Sunday that they’re working on a headset called Vive; Nvidia is expected to announce its own headset this week at the Game Developers Conference. And that list doesn’t even include the headsets being made by non-gaming companies like Carl Zeiss AG, or forthcoming augmented reality wearables like CastAR, Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Few of these products are available to consumers just yet. But even listing them is fatiguing.

I write about virtual reality, but I’m also a consumer potentially interested in buying a headset one day. From the latter perspective, this is disconcerting. Unlike my smartphone or computer, which I depend on daily, I don’t strictly need one of these devices. And there are already so many options, and so many more likely still to come, that I might not buy any of them at launch, absent an exclusive “killer app” that provides enough long-term value to justify the early-adopter cost.

And where would such a killer app come from? Nobody knows. Several players here — Oculus, Sony and Valve, especially — have strong ties to the software development world, but with so few devices on sale to date, no one yet knows the size of the consumer VR market; I’ve heard estimates ranging from a few million to, if you believe Facebook, “billions of people.” And however large that market is, it will be fragmented to hell from the start.

I’ve heard grumblings from a handful of VR developers who wish Facebook had gone ahead and released a consumer version of the Oculus Rift by now. With a steady drumbeat of technological improvements, though, Facebook has said over and over in interviews that it sees VR as a long-term play, and Oculus has said it doesn’t want to slap its name on an imperfect product.

Despite the real problems noted above, it’s hard to fault Facebook and Oculus here. Whatever they release and market will have to meet a very high bar of hype; if it makes too many users feel ill, or doesn’t have enough good software, or otherwise seems inadequate, the company risks permanently alienating potential customers.

In VR, first impressions really matter.

And here’s the unfortunate upshot, even for the hypothetical maker of a “perfect” VR headset: Some of the headsets we’re hearing about now will inevitably fail to meet that bar. For any consumers not yet sold on the premise of virtual reality, a market flooded with headsets of varying quality is just a headache waiting to happen.

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