I recently had the opportunity to test Facebook’s upcoming Oculus Go virtual reality headset. Announced last year, and due to ship later this year, the announcement made waves because Facebook plans to sell the standalone headset-which works without a PC or smartphone-for $200. My hands-on testing showed a remarkably polished device that yields a very immersive experience. But Facebook has yet to articulate just how it plans to market and sell Oculus Go, so its success is far from assured.
High-quality Optics and Sound
When Facebook first announced Oculus Go, and its price point, many presumed that the device would drive a VR experience more comparable to today’s screenless viewers (such as Samsung’s Gear VR) than a high-end tethered headset such as Facebook’s own Oculus Rift. While it’s true that the hardware that constitutes Oculus Go may not measure up to spec-for-spec to high-end rigs connected to top-shelf PCs, the device itself is a testament to what’s possible when the one vendor is producing a product that tightly integrates the hardware and the software. It’s clear that Facebook and hardware partner Xiaomi has done a masterful job of tuning the software to utilize the hardware’s capabilities.
I spent about 20 minutes in the headset and was amazed at how easy it was to wear, how great the optics looked, the high quality of the integrated audio, and the functionality of the hand-held controller. I have tested most the VR hardware out there, and this was among the most immersive experiences I’ve had in VR. That’s an incredible statement when you consider the cost of the hardware, and the fact it is inherently limited to three-degrees-of-freedom motion-tracking capabilities (high-end rigs offer six degrees).
Facebook has slowly been rolling out details about the hardware inside Oculus Go, including details about the next-generation lenses that significantly improve the screen-door effect that impacts most of today’s VR experiences. The company has also talked about some of the tricks it employs to drive a higher-quality optical experience while hammering the graphics subsystem less, leading to better battery life and less comfort-destroying heat.
One of my key takeaways from the demonstration was that with the Oculus Go, Facebook had created an immensely comfortable VR headset, and I can’t overstate the importance of that. Today, even the most die-hard VR fan must contend with the fact that if they’re using a screenless viewer such as the Oculus-powered Gear VR with a Samsung smartphone, they can only do it for short periods of time before the heat emanating from the smartphone makes you want to take it off. Heat is less of an issue with tethered headsets, but the discomfort of the tether weighing down the headset means there are limits to just how much time you can spend fully immersed in those rigs, too.
But Can They Sell It?
So the Oculus Go hardware is great, and the standalone form factor drives a unique and compelling virtual reality experience. But the question remains: How is Facebook going to market and sell this device, and is there enough virtual reality content out there to get mainstream customers to lay down $200?
To date, Facebook hasn’t said much publicly about the way it intends to push Oculus Go into the market, and through which channels. The company undoubtedly learned a great deal about channels with its successes (and failures) with the Oculus Rift. The bottom line is that, for the foreseeable future people really want to try out virtual reality before they buy it. Oculus Go should be significantly easier to demonstrate in store than a complicated headset tethered to a PC, but how will Facebook incentivize the channel? What apps will it run? Who will ensure that the devices are clean and operational?
When I talk to Oculus executives, their belief that virtual reality is an important and vital technology is immediately clear. Often it feels as if they see its ascension as a certainty and just a matter of time. But for the next few years, moving virtual reality from an early adopter technology to something the average consumer will want to use is going to take herculean marketing, education, and delivery efforts. With Oculus Go, Facebook has a key piece of the puzzle: a solid standalone device at a reasonable price. Now it needs to put into place the remaining pieces to ensure a successful launch.