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VR still isn’t mainstream, but Oculus thinks its new $200 headset could fix that

Cheaper headsets are part of Facebook’s plan to bring virtual reality to the masses.

When Facebook paid more than $2 billion to buy the much hyped virtual reality startup Oculus in 2014, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t shy about positioning VR as the world’s next big technological phenomenon.

“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones,” he wrote at the time. “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”

But in the three and a half years since Zuckerberg wrote those words, VR remains very much a niche product. Roughly two million VR headsets shipped worldwide in 2016, with Oculus accounting for around 400,000 of those shipments, according to research firm Canalys. Not a small number, but it’s far from mainstream.

Facebook’s VR headsets try to cover every price point

That’s why Facebook, in its latest plan, has devised a VR headset for every price point and interest level. On Wednesday, Oculus announced its first standalone headset, called Oculus Go, which won’t require a smartphone, cables or wires to operate.

Nate Mitchell, an Oculus co-founder who oversees hardware and software for the Rift, said price is one of the main obstacles to getting more people in VR. “The cheaper we make these devices, the more folks are going to jump in,” he said. “If we could offer a device at $99, or exaggerate it all the way down to free, we think people would be jumping into VR in a heartbeat.”

The company also confirmed that it’s building a second standalone headset, a unit still in prototype-phase called Santa Cruz. (We tested it Wednesday, and it was pretty slick.)

Throw in Facebook’s existing Rift headset, and the low-end Samsung Gear VR headset (the phone maker produces it in partnership with Oculus), and you’re looking at four different headsets for, what we think will be, four different price points.

Person using Samsung Gear VR Facebook
  • Samsung Gear VR ($99, not including a smartphone) — This headset is powered by a Samsung smartphone. You just snap it into place and you can jump into virtual reality. The drawbacks are that you need an expensive smartphone, and the headset doesn’t support positional tracking, which means body or arm movements you make in the real-world won’t impact the movements of your virtual avatar in the virtual world. You see everything from a stationary spot, though you can turn your head to see a 360-degree view, of course.
Person using Oculus Go Facebook
  • Oculus Go ($199) — Zuckerberg described this headset on Wednesday as being in the “sweet spot” between the Gear VR headset and the Rift. This headset doesn’t require a phone to operate — the computer is built-in. But it won’t offer positional tracking, either. Facebook will get the device to developers by the end of the year, and plans to start shipping units in early 2018.
Person using Santa Cruz VR headset Facebook
  • Santa Cruz ($TBD) — This headset is still in prototype-phase, and Oculus hasn’t mentioned a ship date or a price point yet, though Mitchell suggested it would cost somewhere between the Go and the Rift. This standalone headset is meant to feel more like the high-end Rift, but unlike the Rift, it won’t require a high-powered PC or any cables in order to operate. The computer will come built-in, and the headset will have positional tracking, which means you can move your body around in the real world and it will effect where your virtual body moves in the virtual world.
Person using Oculus Rift Facebook
  • Oculus Rift ($399) — Oculus’s most-expensive headset is predominantly used by gamers. It offers positional tracking, but requires an expensive PC and cables to operate so it’s not very portable.

Zuckerberg reiterated Wednesday that his goal is to get one billion people using VR. It just might take a while.

“When we were acquired, Mark [Zuckerberg] came out [and said] this is a ten year journey,” Mitchell told Recode. “We’ve been at Facebook now for three years. Will we get a billion people into VR in the next seven years? I don’t know. It would be awesome. I think it’ll probably take a little bit more than that, but I’m optimistic.”

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