Oculus Rift's price sparks backlash, but gamers are buying it anyway.

Gamers Are Outraged at the Oculus Rift’s Price. They're Buying It Anyway.

Gamers Are Outraged at the Oculus Rift’s Price. They're Buying It Anyway.

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A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 6 2016 4:39 PM

Gamers Are Outraged at the Oculus Rift’s Price. They’re Buying It Anyway.

Oculus Rift VR headset
A $600 price tag won't be a problem if the Oculus Rift delivers on the hype.

Image courtesy of Oculus VR

In two years, we’ll all be wandering the streets with virtual-reality headsets pasted to our noggins. Either that, or every VR prototype will be buried under a concrete slab in a New Mexico desert.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate’s senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

While there’s perhaps some middle ground between universal adoption and humiliating failure, that hasn’t been reflected in the rhetoric around the Oculus Rift. It is hard to think of another consumer tech product that has gone through so many cycles of hype and backlash before it has even been released to the public. (Oh, wait, no it isn’t: Google Glass. Hmm—hold that thought.) Now, the long-awaited consumer version of the Rift headset is finally available for preorder, and the price is higher than expected: $599.

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What do you get for your 600 bucks? The headset will come with built-in headphones, a microphone, a sensor, an Xbox One controller, and the newly announced Oculus Remote.

For gamers who’ve waited two years to get their hands—er, heads—on one, Wednesday’s announcement induced some nasty sticker shock.

That’s partly because the first prototypes of the device, the Oculus Development Kit 1 and DK2, cost just $300 and $350, respectively. As the Verge’s Adi Robertson pointed out, the low price was a big part of what made the headset such a breakthrough.

The Rift looks even less attainable when you consider the hardware required to run it. Forget smartphones and laptops—you’ll need a high-end desktop PC, probably one purchased in the past year, with a fancy graphics card. That could run you upwards of $2,000. The specs are so stringent that Oculus offers a special compatibility tool that will tell you whether your machine is up to the task. If it isn’t, you’ll have the option starting in February to preorder a package that includes both a Rift and a Rift-ready PC for $1,499.

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So, yes, the Oculus Rift is expensive, and parent company Facebook could have done a better job managing expectations ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. But the outrage is largely misplaced.

New technologies often start out pricy, for the simple reason that it costs a lot of money to design, test, and manufacture a product for which a market and supply chain do not yet exist. The Rift headset is a complex and powerful device, as Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was quick to point out on Twitter (a little defensively). Even at $600, the company is “not making any money on Rift hardware,” he said.

If the product delivers on its promise, a high initial price tag is unlikely to pose a long-term obstacle to its success. Early adopters will gladly foot the bill, then strut around making everyone else jealous until the price comes down to a level ordinary consumers can afford. Oculus is also wisely appealing to its earliest supporters by offering the Rift for free as a thank you to those who bought the original development kit on Kickstarter.

Indeed, at the same time that Twitter erupted in indignation over the Rift’s price, avid gamers clogged Oculus’ servers as they raced to enter their credit card numbers. The estimated ship date for the first preorders was March 28. But as the orders piled up on Wednesday, so did the wait times. Try to buy one now, just a few hours after it was announced, and you’ll get an estimated ship date sometime in May. (Luckey says those wait times may shrink as the company works to weed out fraudulent orders.)

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Yes, a high price tag can backfire if the product fails to live up to the hype. Those same early adopters who are so willing to shell out on a preorder can turn into a pack of wolves if the goods are underwhelming. And the jealousy of those who can’t afford the hot new gadget can curdle into resentment and derision. See: Glass, Google.

There is some risk of a Glasshole-style backlash against the Rift. They’re both computing devices that are worn on the face, for one thing, with all the antisocial signals that sends. They both look pretty dorky, despite the best efforts of their respective design teams. Both may ultimately turn out to have been a little ahead of their time.

Having used various versions of the Oculus headset several times over the past two years, however, I doubt the Rift will suffer the same ignominious fate. Impressive as it was technologically, Glass offered a clunky user experience from the start. The Rift does not.

The feeling you get the first time you look left, right, up, and down and see gorgeously rendered graphics in every direction is hard to describe. It reminded me of what it was like to play a Sega Dreamcast for the first time, or to try an iPhone after years of wielding a Motorola Razr. And no, strapping your Samsung to your face is not the same.

Besides, if Oculus had stripped the product down to sell it more cheaply, it might have followed in the tracks of another great tech disappointment: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, which famously sacrificed features like a full-color display to launch at a more affordable price ($179). It flopped so badly that virtual reality became a punch line for a decade afterward. Luckey and company appear to have learned the relevant lesson: Affordability won’t help you if the gaming’s no fun.