Will Oculus create a Rift with the past? Probably not

Oculus Rift
Neal Romanek
January 6th 2016 at 10:30AM : By Neal Romanek

The new VR headset is available for pre-order starting today

Today, you will either be: a.) Finally preordering your Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the next step in visual entertainment delivery. Or b.) Not.

At 8am Pacific Time, Oculus Rift will finally be available for preorder in 20 countries, and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey will be answering questions during a Reddit Ask Me Anything today at 6pm Pacific Time. The price and shipping date for the headset are still undisclosed and original Kickstarter backers will receive a free consumer version of the Rift.

Oculus Rift has everything going for it. Birthed from an overwhelmingly enthusiastic Kickstarter campaign by Oculus VR, the anticipation brewing for it almost rivals the excitement over that phone that Steve Jobs had everybody excited for in 2007. Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion in 2014 and has been throwing its weight behind the technology.

Sony and Microsoft are also working on their own VR headsets, and Google offered a low-tech Google Cardboard set for DIY enthusiasts (as well as half a billion dollars investment in augmented reality company Magic Leap). Samsung's Gear VR goggles shipped before Christmas, and 21st Century Fox this week has reached an agreement to acquire a stake in VR/AR glasses maker Osterhout Design Group.

The first market for VR headsets is the games industry, of course. But there seems to be an industry-wide bet that they will be adopted for wider media viewing. But will they? 

Oculus Cinema is a free Oculus application that allows users to watch video in the headset in a virtual cinema environment, giving the sense of watching a film on a cinema screen. The app also has a networked mode which allows multiple users to watch the same video and interact with each other in a virtual space. But for media viewing, Rift is still likely to encounter the same prejudices 3D did: If you didn't want to sit in your living room wearing 3D glasses, are you going to sit in your living room (or kitchen or garage or bathroom) wearing a wraparound headset? Scooting over to steal a kiss from your partner is going to be (literally) clunky.

But the who-wants-to-wear-a-big-thing-on-your-face straw man aside, virtual reality headsets are still not likely to become mainstream consumer entertainment technology any time soon. Not because they don't provide an extraordinary user experience - the immersion Oculus can provide is amazing, and the technology opens up new ways of storytelling, whole new genres of media, in fact. The main barrier to mass adoption is that VR headsets are at odds with audience behaviour - at least as it stands now.

21st century audiences are dippers, not divers. We want to slip in and out of our movies, social media, work spaces easily and seamlessly. We want to be able to watch a movie, text a friend, check the weather, look up an actor's profile on IMDb, play games and - here's the clincher - we want to do these while cooking dinner or jumping on a train or pretending to work, in parallel with our lives. Headsets require deep immersion, commitment - and we are a pathologically commitment-phobic society. It seems strange to think that skimming Netflix on the run is now an entrenched status quo, but that seems to be the case.

Facebook understands this fear of commitment intimately, and has spent billions trying to understand it and harness it. The company has a genius for keeping large numbers of users inside its ecosystem, and that will no doubt be its main task in developing the Oculus Rift - how to fit as many of our day to day experiences inside that headset. If anyone can figure out how to make us wear a headset 12 hours a day, Facebook can.

The potential applications for VR and augmented reality in industry, communication and entertainment are thrilling, and Oculus's servers will likely crash with all of today's preorders. But will there be a VR headset in every house hold this year? Or next? Or in five years? Will we eventually be watching our content in a VR space instead of on our pocket devices? Probably not. Human nature won't be dictated to - at least not yet.

Oculus Rift will be available in the following countries: United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and Taiwan. 

UPDATE: Oculus founder Palmer Luckey announced the price for the Rift would be $599. The announcement provoked criticism from tech fans who had anticipated the price would be $350 after a remark Luckey made in an interview. Oculus Rift will begin shipping on March 28.