Today, Oculus revealed that you'll need a pretty serious (that means expensive) Windows computer to get the "full experience" with its Rift virtual reality headset. The Rift has come a long way from its first crude prototype, and so has VR — something that was once just a really cool way to play Doom has now attracted attracted a wide range of filmmakers, journalists, artists, scientists, and even Facebook, which bought Oculus in 2014. But the finished product certainly isn't the casual, social telepresence machine that Mark Zuckerberg imagined when he first bought Oculus. Zuckerberg's vision looks a lot more like the Gear VR: the $200 mobile headset that runs off Samsung's phones. Instead, the Rift is — and might be, for a while — consumer virtual reality's cutting edge.
Oculus just published the recommended PC specs for its consumer headset, which minimizes lag and, by extension, motion sickness and disorientation. And the full Rift experience turns out to be a bit of an exclusive one. It doesn't just take a gaming PC, it takes a desktop with some of the latest and most expensive parts on the market; the graphics card alone costs around $350, and the whole thing prices out to around $1,000 at minimum. While this isn't the upper limit of gaming PCs, that's partly because it's hard to tell where the upper limit even is — if you're so inclined, you can start with a $1,000 graphics card and go up from there. And these costs only apply if you're building the PC yourself. A pre-built machine comes at an even greater premium.
The Rift's specs will get less daunting, but it's still not a casual purchase
There are a few important caveats to these prices. Most obviously, the consumer edition of the Rift isn't coming out until the first quarter of 2016, so the parts won't be new by that time. Oculus says the specs are locked in for "the lifetime of the Rift" — however long that proves to be, it will probably give people more leeway than the video game upgrade cycle. By the time anyone is in a position to buy a consumer Rift, finding a PC to support it will be a lot easier — you might even be able to use a laptop, which you can't count on right now. And these are also the "recommended" specs, implying a lower absolute minimum.
Even so, it's not going to be a casual purchase. These might be mid-tier gaming PC parts by next year, but they're still gaming PC parts, not things you'll find in somebody's everyday machine. And that's not a trivial distinction. Traditional computers are becoming less and less central to our lives, so as our sister site Polygon writes, the PC ends up being more like a separate gaming console. And whatever I feel as a PC gamer, there are a lot of reasons for people to pick up an actual home console to use with something like Sony's Project Morpheus instead — user-friendliness, local multiplayer, and cost, to name a few.
This will probably be doubly true for Valve and HTC's Vive, which is touting itself as an even more high-end experience and is coming out sooner. "We haven't yet announced PC requirements for HTC Vive, but we can confirm Vive is a premium VR experience that will require a premium PC," an HTC spokesperson told us, confirming that Vive is still set to appear before the end of 2015.
What the Rift and Vive can offer is a preview of the experiences that could work on lower-end headsets within a year or two. If VR actually does go mainstream, most people might still never buy an Oculus Rift, but they can reap the benefits of game developers, researchers, and industrial designers figuring out what works on a high-definition headset with a wider range of motion and (in Valve's case) fairly sophisticated controllers. And if you actually do get one? Well, you'll get to see everything a little early.