Oculus Rift at retail: The road to a $300 price point, secret features, and the threshold of success
John Carmack made the news when he began working for Oculus full time, and this is a subject that Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, and Nate Mitchell, the VP of product at Oculus, are keen to talk about.
You can tell the two men are used to sharing interviews, and our meeting was fun. We've met a number of times, and both Luckey and Mitchell love talking about VR, and they often bounce ideas off each other during the conversation, or trip over each other's sentences. So what's it like to have one of the sharpest minds in the history of gaming working on your product?
“It’s badass, he’s one of the smartest programmers out there. He understands hardware, and software, and everything in between,” Luckey said. “And he loves VR.” Both men were effusive in their praise for Carmack’s skill, and now he’s able to focus his mind on the Rift as a product.
In fact, Carmack has already pushed the hardware further than expected, although those details are hard to pry out of the two men. “We can’t talk about any breakthroughs,” Luckey said when I asked what Carmack has brought to the table. Have there been some? “Yes, and we just can’t talk about them.”
The secret features, and the retail hardware
There are many people in the industry who are coding projects using their Rift dev kits, and many enthusiasts like myself who simply enjoy playing with theirs, but the question of a retail release always comes up. In fact, there is an internal checklist at Oculus of everything the retail kit has to achieve before it will be released.
A high resolution screen is one important factor. Lower latency is another. Positional tracking is a third. It needs to be lighter, and more comfortable. The user experience of putting it on and taking it off needs to be improved, as does launching programs with eye strain, as your computer’s desktop isn’t compatible with the Rift.
There are other, secret things that the hardware needs to achieve before it’s ready for a retail launch, but neither men would discuss what else the hardware needs to do. There are surprises coming, it seems. I asked if developers were aware of these secret, upcoming upgrades to the hardware.
“That’s a complicated question,” Mitchell said. “There are some people we work with very closely, developers we worked with even before the Kickstarter, so some of them know what we’re doing. But some of it is internal only.”
No other details were coming, but if you think the hardware is good now, just know that there are more features coming. VR enthusiasts, begin your speculation.
What will it cost?
The most important question in this discussion? How much would they like the final, retail product to cost the consumer. “The same price we’re at right now,” Luckey said without hesitation. Just to be clear, the developer kit is now at $300, an impressive price point for the quality of the hardware in relation to other head-mounted display.
Still, with positional tracking and the new, unannounced features, can they really launch at $300?
“We’re going to see. We’ve said we’re going to try to stay in the same price range, so whether that’s up or down remains to be seen,” Luckey explained. “We’re not going to compromise to save $100. If it has to cost more to be an awesome experience then we’re going to do that… we also have to keep in mind that if something is not affordable, it may as well not exist for most gamers. If a headset is a thousand dollars, nobody is going to be able to buy it.”
“It’s hugely important,” Mitchell said when I asked about how the price factored into their final design for the retail hardware. If people don’t buy it due to price, developers won’t create games, putting the product into a death spiral. “Making it a reasonable price is super-key to the success of the platform,” he continued.
That also comes down to software, though. Right now they’re realistic about what to expect from launch software. “There’s not a set number of games that we’re targeting… if there is one game, that’s amazing, if there are two, that’s incredible. If there are five then we’re really starting off on the right foot,” Mitchell said.
It’s not about porting existing content, although a number of games will likely work in VR at launch, but to show off what the hardware can do when developers create games for it directly.
“I’m hoping that we’re going to have a number of games made for VR experience, and that’s going to make all the difference,” Mitchell said.
The retail hardware is going to go up in quality in just about every way. During our meeting we were able to try the new HD prototype, which is an impressive experience, but they both say that the display in that hardware is still not good enough. “It’s the bare minimum,” Luckey said.
“No, let’s not say bare minimum, it’s the baseline,” Mitchell replied, cutting in.
“Okay, it’s the baseline from which everything else rises,” Luckey said, smiling.
I was curious about how many units they’re hoping to sell at launch, or what it would take to keep the company operating, but they weren’t comfortable discussing specifics.
“It is too early, and confidential,” Luckey said. “As a baseline, you can look at a large company and ask what’s successful for them. If this large company, with all this overhead, has to sell five million to break even, then Oculus, not being a large company with a ton of overhead… we probably don’t need to sell five million units to break even.”
“We want it to be something that is easy for anyone to get into, we want to make VR consumer friendly, easy to dive into, anyone who is interested can [buy one], no thousand dollar headsets,” Mitchell said, nodding.
“If we aren’t selling enough to keep our company afloat, then we haven’t made a good enough product,” Lucky said.
“I agree,” Mitchell said.
“I think we can make a product good enough to keep us afloat,” Luckey stated.
“100 percent,” Mitchell replied, with a smile on his face.