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The $600 Oculus Rift is the end of an era

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The thing that democratized VR is now its exclusive high end

Lots of people are angry about the Oculus Rift's $599 price tag. It's hundreds of dollars more than an actual gaming console, and twice as much as the original development kit. It also requires a powerful computer to run — maybe $1,000 if you build it yourself. It's a gamer's device.

The thing is, gamers are known for being willing to spend absurd amounts of money on water-cooled PCs covered in neon tubes, keyboards with fancy mechanical switches, and $120 special edition games. It's possible to look at this and wonder why it's any surprise — to say that the Rift is self-evidently a specialty item, a "one percenter's toy." The Rift's price certainly isn't odd; Oculus is trying to set the bar for virtual reality. But asking why people with expensive computers are upset about paying a bit more misses the point: that the Oculus Rift started out as VR's great democratizer.

Palmer Luckey's original Rift prototype didn't just succeed because of a technological breakthrough — it was built around concepts that had been around for decades. It succeeded because it was cheap. Luckey was working at a time when smartphones were making motion sensors and small LCD panels easy to find, and computing had advanced enough that what took a supercomputer in the '90s could be run on a laptop. $300 isn't pocket change, but compared to the high-end headsets of the '90s (combined with the cost of a computer that ran them) it was a huge shift.

The Rift took high-quality VR beyond universities and arcades

The Rift took high-quality VR out of universities and arcades and put it in the hands of curious hobbyists. The DK1 wasn't user-friendly, but in terms of basic technological capability, it worked with aging or relatively modest machines. It wasn't affordable for everyone, but if you had an idea for a game or an art project or a virtual reality desktop or even a medical application — like one developer's app for focusing lazy eyes — it didn't take too much disposable income to test it. A "VR Ready" PC was just something that could play a decent video game, not a frighteningly high benchmark that almost no one could meet. Oculus repeatedly said that it wanted the consumer Rift to sell at a similarly affordable price to the DK1.

But since then, the Rift has been joined by even cheaper and more accessible headsets that run on something even more ubiquitous than computers: smartphones. 360-degree video experiments live on Google Cardboard. Puzzle games flourish on the Gear VR. As mobile headsets have flourished, the Rift has slowly turned into a testing ground for high-end experiences, pushing the technological envelope with motion trackers and hyper-realistic graphics. It's the symbol of aspirational VR, not VR for everyone. Many of its original fans, unless they ordered a development kit during the Kickstarter campaign, won't be able to participate in its launch.

The world needs people that push the technological envelope, because yesterday's extravagant luxuries are often today's everyday tech. Oculus hasn't left a gap in the market, just opened a new one. You can experience VR that's better than the original Rift for hundreds of dollars less. Mass-market VR isn't dead. But this is a final reminder that the Oculus Rift — the thing that brought virtual reality to the whole world — is now for only a few of us.

Read next: Our Oculus Rift review