Skip to main content

In the debate over Oculus Rift’s $599 price tag, both sides are right

In the debate over Oculus Rift’s $599 price tag, both sides are right

Share this story

You may feel pressured to have a strong opinion on the Oculus Rift's $599 price tag, announced today alongside the opening of preorders for the virtual reality headset. A line has been drawn in the sand of a certain virtual beach with "it's too expensive" on one side, and on the other, a fanbase that probably would have handed over the keys to the bank vault if Oculus had asked nicely. So which side is right?

Both, frankly. And both are a little wrong, too. What's most curious is how partisan the virtual reality "scene" has become, in which both the fans and the skeptics have already pre-heated their ovens for a healthy serving of crow. Each party's argument is overinflated and ready to pop.

Let's begin with the "you must be joking" set.

Yes, you're right. Costing more than any video game console of this generation, and requiring an expensive bleeding-edge gaming PC, the Oculus Rift is a towering barrier to the supposed mainstream VR culture some of us felt promised. Say the PC costs $1,200 and the Rift costs $599, and the Oculus Touch controllers and some new software costs a couple hundred dollars, and suddenly the enterprise is somewhere around two grand. That's ludicrous! It's also funny math.

Revolutions take time

Any critic that's including the cost of a high-end PC could have written off the Oculus Rift, no matter its price tag, using the secondary hardware cost as de facto ball and chain. The Oculus Rift isn't for everyone, not yet, and the $599 price tag makes it clear Oculus is as keenly aware of that as anyone. You're right to feel misled by anyone who told you otherwise, but that doesn't mean there isn't an audience.

In June 2015, Oculus claimed to have shipped 56,334 DK1 versions of the Rift and 118,930 DK2 units. Some of those were gratis, many weren't. All of them were acquired in a period with very few applications to warrant their use. And at $599, it calls to mind the PlayStation 3, another gaming platform thrashed for a $599 launch price that was designed to supplement another expensive piece of hardware, the early HDTVs. Early adopters have served as the base for everything from video game consoles to smartphones to that hoverboard your niece got for Christmas. Expect virtual reality to follow the path carved by the now ubiquitous devices that came before it.

And how about the "the future is here" crowd?

Yes, you're right, for all the reasons above to not see a hefty price tag as evidence the sky is falling on VR. In fact, compared to the elaborate virtual reality rigs of the 1990s, $599 seems downright cheap. For a gamer who already owns the specced-out PC, a $599 headset is probably less ludicrous than owning multiple ultra HD monitors or connecting a couple high-end graphics cards — both things plenty of PC gamers do!

The Oculus Rift isn't "obscenely cheap" to the average person

But the Oculus Rift won't trigger the virtual reality revolution overnight, nor is such a revolution guaranteed to arrive ever. Fortunately for you, the optimistic fan, Oculus appears to recognize the importance of a healthy, competitive market with a variety of pricing points. Just as video games were evangelized through affordable hardware like the Game Boy and software like free smartphone apps, virtual reality will go mainstream if and when Google Cardboard clicks, or all smartphones double as VR screens a la Samsung's Gear VR. Sony's PlayStation VR — with its suite of games and presumably lower price tag — will likely be a boon for the format, and in some capacity, Oculus Rift's price tag could serve the role of a pro-wrestling heel, making PSVR look like an affordable underdog to console gamers.

At $600, Oculus Rift isn't the instantaneous game changer some hyperbolic critics predicted. Nor is it "obscenely cheap," as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey tweeted this afternoon, mistaking whatever loss his company may or may not be swallowing on the hardware for a public perception of value. VR is unproven. Oculus' manufacturing cost doesn't make the $600 price any more or less of an investment for the customer.

Ultimately, the reality of virtual reality is simple, dull, and a little predictable. The price is a middle-of-the-road first step toward an audacious future, a future that hinges on many other headsets from a half-dozen companies, software from hundreds of developers, and applications that haven't even been imagined yet.

What we learned today is the cost of front row seats for some truly impressive primordial ooze.

Subscribe to What's Tech? on iTunes, listen on SoundCloud, or subscribe via RSS. And be sure to follow us on Twitter. You can also find the entire collection of What's Tech? stories right here on the The Verge dot com.

Read next: Our Oculus Rift review