Oculus Rift: Facebook’s virtual reality headset is here – at a price

Headset pre-orders open as Twitter users express dismay over prices

Universal Music Group – the label that boasts Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Madonna on its roster – has revealed it is teaming up with iHeartMedia to “virtualise” the gig experience, with the hardware now available for pre-order. Industry experts are in agreement: 2016 may be the year that “virtual reality” comes of age.

Buying into the concept, however, is pricey. At £499 for UK buyers, the Oculus Rift box includes headset, sensor, games and controller, while next month, for $1,499 (£1,030), a package will be available for pre-order that includes a computer – should your ancient laptop not be quite up to speed.

The price tags have caused consternation, with many taking to Twitter to express their dismay. But according to William McMaster, head of VR at the London-based company Visualise, the Oculus release is a pivotal moment. “It is a template for what VR headsets are going to be like in the future for everybody,” he says comparing it to the release of the first Macintosh computer. And VR-based media is already hitting the mainstream: beyond fuelling a new wave of games, artists such as Björk have been quick to embrace the technology for music videos – indeed, in September Taylor Swift and her team scooped an Emmy award for their offering AMEX Unstaged: The Taylor Swift Experience.

Virtual reality gigs are the next frontier. “It would be an awesome experience to be able to see a band you really love in China but you are in London, [or] vice versa,” says John Oswald, a director at design and innovation firm Fjord. McMaster, believes that it’s primarily likely to be early adopters who are willing to splash out. “Is the average person going to go out and spend £500 on a VR headset and £1000 on a gaming PC? Probably not,” he says. Piers Harding-Rolls, director of games at industry analyst IHS Technology, agrees. “The launch of these headsets this year is really not about the mass market,” he says, adding that he expects gamers and committed gadget-fiends to be the first to shell out. “I think we have to just be realistic about how quickly it is going to be adopted,” he adds. “For the high-end devices we expect, globally, less than three million to be sold this year across all the devices.”

The Oculus Rift is not the only VR experience consumers can expect to get to grips with this year: HTC is set to launch the commercial version of its headset, Vive, in April while Sony’s PlayStation VR is also scheduled for release in 2016. For those with a lower budget both Google cardboard and Gear VR, a joint venture between Samsung Electronics and Oculus, are already available, using your phone to created a virtual world. But, says, McMaster, the Oculus Rift is “the top of the line, sort of Ferrari” when it comes to VR headsets. “What the Oculus Rift can do as a piece of technology is something that a cheap VR headset will be able to do in a couple of years,” he says.

Oswald believes entertainment is just the beginning of VR’s possibilities. “Is it a music communication thing? I think it is actually way deeper than that,” he says, adding that it could be a boon when it comes to understanding and treating disease. Others, too, believe VR is set to grow. “I think that narrative film-making, and 360[-degree] video, is going to be a really big one,” says McMaster, who also sees advertising as a key area for the technology. “Communication is the other huge one for VR,” he adds. “That’s why Facebook bought Oculus back in 2014 – because as a communication platform it is potentially incredible.”


Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

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