Let’s get something out of the way straight off: Oculus Rift is wicked cool. If you’ve ever had the chance to try it out, you know that it works incredibly well without giving you headaches or squishing your glasses or anything. It is a damn nice bit of kit. Pre-sales started today, and are moving quite briskly despite the relatively spendy price point - in fact, I bet you know someone hitting refresh as fast as they can. Its excellence isn’t in question, or indeed, the point. The reason the Oculus Rift is going to be stuck as a niche product isn’t because it isn’t cool, it’s because most folks simply couldn’t care less about the kind of cool it is.
Those of us who thrive on the internet and have the latest i-hotness in their pocket often forget this, but the typical person really can’t be bothered fiddling about with tech. They want things to work, to be cheap, and to be easy to understand. They want to push one button and have wonderful things happen, which is a big part of why the majority of America still watches cable TV and couldn’t figure out how the Wii U was different from the Wii. And, more importantly, they didn’t care enough to figure it out.
Oculus, cool as it is, has a fairly sizable barrier to entry. It has to be calibrated, it needs basically all the USB ports in the world - oh, wait, let me back up, you have to have a PC that can even run the damn thing in the first place, which means you need to know your system specs - and then you need all the USB ports in the world (including USB 3.0, which is a thing people don’t know exists). You’re probably scoffing right now at the idea that people don’t know their computer specs but as anyone who’s ever done IT support for their family is well aware, people don’t know jack-all about computers. And yeah, they could learn, but why should they? There’s loads of entertainment options out there that don’t require extra effort to enjoy.
And then there’s the price.
All of the above might be ignored if the Rift were relatively cheap - say, $200 or so. Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that the current $599 is outrageous. Given where we are in the Rift timeline, that’s a reasonable asking price. But that is not ordinary consumer price, especially considering that the Rift’s primary use at this point is playing games, something many other things do already. That is not “Oh, hey, this looks nifty!” price. That is laser disc, 3DO, NeoGeo, Betamax, only-super-technofans-with-deep-pockets-need-apply price.
And that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Technophiles with the funds to afford it - and the ability to appreciate it - will be quite pleased with their purchase. It’s clear that Oculus has the ability to offer truly unique experiences - for now. It has an advantage in being the first to market, but the clock has already started on that particular leg up, and it will become utterly irrelevant in the face of a lower price or ease of use. PlayStation VR has a ready-made customer base and structure for an ongoing supply of entertainment options - if its headset is easier to set up and/or cheaper, too, it might not really matter how great Oculus works.
Whether or not any of that ultimately is important for Oculus depends very much on what criteria you use to judge it. Will it become as ubiquitous as the DVD player? Almost certainly not. Does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know the specific goals the company has for its product, but I think it’s fair to assume they understand the lay of the consumer land. Oculus Rift will not be widely embraced by the public and will undoubtedly be called a “failure” as a result by some who focus solely on mainstream omnipresence, but I think we’d be wise to ponder the longer-term picture. What does today’s Oculus pre-order mean for the company five years from now, and how will other VR strategies changes as a result? No matter your thoughts about virtual reality (I’ve tried it, trust me, it is legit), this is going to be worth watching.