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With Oculus Go’s Rockbottom Price, Will Slumbering VR Market Finally Become Real?

Of all the news coming out of Facebook’s F8 conference this week, perhaps none is likely to have a bigger impact on a sector than the arrival of the Oculus Go virtual-reality headset. Priced at $199, the Oculus Go could be, finally, the right compromise of impulse-level price and powerful-enough tech to goose the stagnant VR market in entertainment and media.

Early reviews of the Oculus Go have been generally positive, though they noted the cut-rate price does force some compromises. That’s unavoidable in the near term, even as a technology surfs up the curve of Moore’s Law. The tech just isn’t far enough along, with enough scale, to quite get to that next level. In the meantime, however, we might finally have a device worth riding into mass scale. As Geoff Fowler of the Washington Post put it:

“It’s accessible to people who aren’t super rich or super into video games and computers. And VR will become better when more than just geeks get involved.”

Exactly. Heretofore, your choices in the VR universe were painfully binary: spend several hundred dollars for a high-end set that could tether through bulky wires to an even more expensive gaming computer with the latest graphics card. Or you could go low-end, with a smartphone tucked into Cardboard or some other modestly functional/cheap-feeling kinda headset.

Even cheap and almost decent headsets such as Google’s Daydream or the Samsung Gear VR required pricier versions of those companies’ best smartphones. So, even here, you had to make an overall investment of many hundreds of dollars to join the party (and this party precluded owners of Apple iPhones, among other makers).

The Goldilocks offering, PlayStation 4’s PS VR, still cost $400 and benefitted when paired with the console’s powered-up Pro model, which cost another $400. Still not cheap, though powerful enough/cheap enough to lead the consumer VR market in sales over the past year. And with 75 million PlayStation 4s in the market, at least there was an installed base big enough to justify the chase. That said, the installed base of high-end VR headsets remains less than 4 million, not a big market to work from.

After the hype of 2016, many entertainment-focused VR companies had tumbled deep into the “trough of disillusion” and a desert of opportunities in 2017. Their startup cash had run out, and the experimental or marketing dollars were drying up from big companies looking to dabble in the new platform. Some companies have folded.

Others figured out how to slide through on project work, or more likely, have moved into augmented reality, where content-creation tools were released by Apple, Amazon, Google and others, for a base of AR-capable phones expected to pass 900 million this year. Now that’s an installed base you can work with (even if not enough cool things have come along yet actually doing that).

But Oculus Go checks a lot of boxes, including access to a range of apps for standard entertainment sites such as Netflix and Hulu. It also relies on your smartphone (of whatever type) for the brains of the device, and comes with no “tail” of wires waiting to trip you up.

Even better, to my mind, is that it includes a (fairly rudimentary) social component, allowing you to virtually share a room watching videos or other VR experiences. Its inability to mirror the on-headset image with a nearby screen undercuts the party mode, but that is probably a short-term loss.

I’ll be at multiple conferences this month focused on virtual reality, including this weekend’s VRLA and mid-month’s Future of Immersive Leisure, as well as more general conferences with a VR component (Digital Hollywood and the LA Games Conference). I’m guessing the Oculus Go will be a part of many of the conversations at each show.

In the meantime, at this price, programming array and level of functionality, it could be time for VR to finally take a serious bow in the entertainment and media space. Finally.