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No More Waiting: It's Time for Consumer Virtual Reality

It's put up or shut up time, as the first consumer VR devices start to roll out.

Eric Johnson for Re/code

Facebook likes big numbers. The social network recently notched a billion visitors in a single day. Its photo sharing app Instagram is up to 400 million users.

Now it’s time to start the clock on Oculus, its $2 billion bet that the future of computing and socializing will include virtual reality.

This week is Oculus Connect, the company’s official VR developer conference. That means most of the conversations will tend toward the geeky details. But in addition to providing technical guidance for the people making stuff for Oculus, the company needs to convince those people that what they make will be part of a real business, even if not immediately.

“Once the printing press had been invented, the novel had to be invented to fill the press,” computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland said Tuesday at an awards show for VR developers. “Content is everything.”

The fact is that virtual reality is still not quite ready for the mainstream — and that’s probably okay. The field will be dependent for now on a niche audience of a couple million folks, many of them gamers, before it can scale up to Instagram levels.

If Facebook is good at anything, growing a product user base might be top of the list. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg often talks about virtual reality as the next big platform, akin to how mobile dominates today. We’re just now starting to see how Facebook plans to integrate the two services; on Wednesday, it made it possible to watch 360-degree videos in News Feed, the same sort of videos that are common to VR.

And one of the biggest hurdles to mainstream adoption right now is cost.

The Gear VR, a virtual reality headset powered by a high-end Samsung phone and co-developed by Oculus, is expected to be the centerpiece of new product announcements today because the first consumer version of the hardware is supposed to be coming out soon — before the end of the year, according to Oculus CTO John Carmack.

How much will it cost? Well, a version of the Gear VR released for developers last year came in at around $900 if you didn’t already have a compatible phone and had to buy a new one unlocked. However, Carmack cautioned on Twitter last month that his followers shouldn’t buy a new phone until after this week.

https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack/status/632233609374490624

That might mean a price drop when the phone and the headset are bundled together. Or it might mean that the headset will be a discounted add-on to a subsidized Samsung phone. Or, and this is less likely but most interesting, it might mean we’re soon to see an integrated device that has the guts of a smartphone permanently attached to the display, which is how many developers who already had a primary smartphone say they use Gear VR today.

Any of those scenarios would point to a more affordable high-end VR device, and that’s a big deal. Facebook needs to prevent other mega-corporations like Google and Sony from undercutting it on accessibility to consumers and running up a bigger install base first. Several developers at Connect told Re/code they’re planning to remain platform-agnostic until they have a sense of where the winds are blowing.

Google has pushed dirt-cheap VR with its Cardboard initiative, distributing more than a million low-cost smartphone holders that generally work okay with the primary smartphones we already have. The end result is generally different from the Gear VR experience, because Cardboard lacks a dedicated input solution and a fleshed-out application store. But they share two crucial benefits: They’re wireless, and they work with the mobile phones we already have.

Meanwhile, Sony is getting ready to release PlayStation VR, formerly called Project Morpheus, by the middle of next year, which will work with the PlayStation 4s already found in some 20 million homes. For people who don’t already have a PS4, the all-in cost of PlayStation VR is expected to come in at around $800 — still cheaper than what a Gear VR setup would cost you today.

Oculus has another headset, the higher-end flagship Oculus Rift, and we’ll almost certainly hear about that today, too. But it will be more expensive (something like $1500 minimum once you include the powerful PC needed to run it), and its release is farther away, currently pegged for Q1 2016.

Oculus will be livestreaming its opening keynotes starting at 10 am PT on its Twitch channel.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.