This morning’s “Step into the Rift” event was supposed to be a huge moment for Oculus VR — the Kickstarter success story-turned-Facebook acquisition that breathed new life into the market for virtual reality, basically dead since the nineties.
We were expecting to hear about the price, the release date (other than the vague “Q1 2016”), games you’ll be able to play at launch, even whether or not we could preorder the Oculus Rift today.
Instead, we got a heaping plate of disappointment.
The applause at the event was short and infrequent, despite the glitz and slickness of the presentation. With only video demos, and no chance to actually try the new hardware, it was hard to get excited.
Besides the final Oculus Rift headset, which looks great but isn’t vastly different from the prototypes we’ve seen so many times before, the biggest announcements of the day were the Oculus Touch, a bizarre-looking but promising controller for virtual reality games and experiences, plus a partnership with Microsoft to play Xbox One games with the Oculus headset via a Windows 10 PC.
But the Oculus Touch is essentially playing catch-up with the competition here.
I’ve tried the Oculus Rift and the competing HTC Vive VR, and I can tell you that if there’s a substantial difference between the image quality on the two, I’m not enough of a videophile to notice.
So if the actual experience is fundamentally similar, it means this virtual reality race comes down to other features.
The HTC Vive VR system has a very similar controller to the Oculus Touch, plus a laser array system for actually tracking your entire body in space. Where the Oculus Rift will track your head and hands, the HTC Vive can track your every move as you walk around a room.
More importantly, the HTC Vive was co-designed by Valve Software, which operates the wildly successful Steam online video game store. What iTunes is to digital music, Steam is to video game downloads. And while the jury’s still out on how well the Oculus will play content from Steam, the HTC Vive was designed from the ground up with that in mind.
As far as that Microsoft partnership, it seems pretty limited. Right now, the way it works is: You put a game in your Xbox One console, activate Windows 10’s game-streaming feature (which is actually pretty neat), and then activate the Oculus Rift in turn.
It’s cool, in theory, but even big-budget action games like Halo 5 weren’t designed with virtual reality in mind, meaning it just won’t be as cool. And this feature presupposes you own a Windows 10 PC. But mostly, it’s a novelty — and a future disappointment for anybody expecting a really immersive game.
Maybe Microsoft will update it to let you plug an Oculus Rift directly into an Xbox One without the need for an intermediary. But then again, maybe not.
Meanwhile, if you really want to get virtual reality into the living room, the Sony Project Morpheus virtual reality system works with the PlayStation 4 right out of the box.
And where the Oculus (and probably the HTC Vive) is going to need an expsensive, $US1000-plus gaming PC to run in addition to the cost of the headset, the PlayStation 4 has a listed MSRP of $US399. Oh, and the Oculus Rift won’t run on a Mac at all.
If you were a developer making a virtual reality game, what would you make it for? The HTC Vive, which has the Steam market locked down and a cool body-tracking system? Sony’s Project Morpheus and the PlayStation 4, which has sold 20 million units worldwide? Or the Oculus Rift, which has the backing of Facebook and the approval of Microsoft, but no other real distinguishing features?
Sure, Oculus Rift has a head start insofar as it was the very first to deliver on the promise of consumer-friendly VR, and it’s gotten big game studios like Insomniac Games, CCP, and Square-Enix to promise their future support.
But Oculus needed to show us something really special that truly set it apart from the growing herd, even if it was an affordable price point. Instead, Oculus only demonstrated that it may have spent so long on getting the Rift to market, it’s already getting left behind.
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