By Olivia Solon
Facebook has unveiled a stand-alone virtual reality headset designed to extend the appeal of the company’s Oculus technology to the masses.
The headset, called Oculus Go, won’t require plugging in a smartphone or a cord tethering it to a personal computer like Oculus Rift or its competitor HTC’s Vive do.
“I am more committed than ever to the future of virtual reality,” said Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to a crowd of computer programmers gathered in San Jose, California, for Oculus’s annual conference.
“This all-in-one device makes VR more accessible than ever and represents a huge leap forward in comfort, visual clarity, and ease-of-use,” added Oculus in a blogpost.
The headset is lightweight and features a high-resolution LCD screen and speakers built in to deliver “spatial audio”.
When it hits the market next year it will cost $199, which is a big drop from the Rift, which originally sold for $599 and required a powerful computer costing at least $500 to power the virtual reality experiences and games. Recent discounts lowered the Rift’s price to $399 at various times during the summer, a markdown Oculus now says will be permanent.
“The strategy for Facebook is to make the onboarding to VR as easy and inexpensive as possible,” said Brian Blau, an analyst with the Gartner research company. “And $199 is an inexpensive entry for a lot of people who are just starting out in VR. The problem is you will be spending that money on a device that only does VR and nothing else.”
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The Oculus Go will straddle the market between the Rift and the Samsung Gear, a $129 headset that runs on some of Samsung’s higher-priced phones. It will be able to run the same VR as the Samsung Gear, leading Blau to conclude the Go will rely on the same Android operating system as the Gear and probably include similar processors as Samsung phones.
The Gear competes against other headsets, such as Google’s $99 Daydream View, that require a smartphone. Google is also working on a stand-alone headset that won’t require a phone, but the company hasn’t specified when that device will be released or how much it will cost.
Zuckerberg promised the Oculus Go would be “the most accessible VR experience ever” and help realize his new goal of having 1 billion people dwelling in virtual reality at some point in the future.
Two days earlier, a cartoon version of Zuckerberg visited hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico, in a livestream that was part disaster tourism, part product promotion. He and Facebook’s head of social virtual reality, Rachel Franklin, appeared as avatars within the broadcast from his profile as they “teleported” to different locations using Facebook’s “social VR” tool Spaces. In reality they were at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters wearing virtual reality headsets.
After many people criticized the VR broadcast in the comments on his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg apologized.
“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world,” he said, adding that he intended to publicize a partnership with the Red Cross where Facebook helps create population maps that can be used by rescue workers.
“Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
Facebook and other major technology companies such as Google and Microsoft that are betting on VR have a long way to go.
About 16m head-mounted display devices were shipped in 2016, a number expected to rise to 22m this year, according to Gartner. Those figures include headsets for what is known as augmented reality.
Zuckerberg, though, remains convinced that VR will evolve into a technology that reshapes the way people interact and experience life, much as Facebook’s social networks and smartphones already have. His visions carry weight, largely because Facebook now has more than 2 billion users and plays an influential role in how people communicate.
But VR so far has been embraced mostly by video game lovers, despite Facebook’s efforts to bring the technology into the mainstream since buying Oculus for $2bn three years ago.
Facebook has shaken up the Oculus management team since then in a series of moves that included the departure of its founder, Palmer Luckey, earlier this year.
The former Google executive Hugo Barra now oversees Facebook’s VR operations.