A More Streamlined Oculus Rift In 2018 Could Accelerate VR Adoption

by Ian Hamilton • December 1st, 2017

The push of VR toward mainstream adoption is at an interesting moment.

On the one hand, we have more VR headsets on the market than ever before powered by technology from Microsoft, Facebook, Sony and Google, with manufacturers including Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, Dell and HP all trying to cut off a piece of what is still a small market.

On the other hand, it was a tough year for many of the VR developers out there who found themselves struggling with low adoption numbers. One of the early social VR apps, AltspaceVR, ran out of money and its remaining team got swiped up by Microsoft. Meanwhile, one of VR’s earliest and biggest proponents, CCP Games, halted all its VR work. Those are just two of the highest-profile situations. There are many more examples of developers struggling in 2017.

The combination is almost enough for naysayers to trot out their overused comparisons to 3D TV and try to claim a premature “VR is dead on arrival.”

The truth is that the biggest issue facing VR adoption continues to be cost. The all-in price for any quality VR headset and the computer which draws the virtual world you visit is still significantly more than $500. Plus, almost all VR headsets on the market in the United States today require multiple pieces to work. It is expensive, and a pain, to get into a VR experience with a friend. Still, major manufacturers did their best this year to lower the barriers and widen the appeal of VR hardware. Here’s a quick summary of what happened in 2017:

  • Facebook’s Oculus Rift drops from $600 to $400, with Black Friday deals bringing it down to $350.
  • Microsoft licenses HoloLens tracking technology to PC manufacturers allowing them to build compelling VR headsets that are easier to use starting at $400, with Black Friday deals bringing the entry level down to $300. Microsoft also embraces Steam.
  • HTC releases Vive Trackers that can increase a sense of presence.
  • Sony bundles the camera with PlayStation VR headsets for $400 and streamlines its hardware a bit.
  • Google significantly upgrades its Daydream View for greater comfort and longer-term use and rolls out a huge feature allowing wireless streaming to Chromecast.

While these efforts are all steps forward in driving greater adoption of VR, I would point to the efforts of Facebook and Microsoft as having the biggest impact in widening the pipeline so developers have more people to which they can sell VR software. I would also point to these two companies as being best positioned to drive adoption even wider in 2018.

Next year, we know Facebook is planning Oculus Go to offer an entry level all-in VR price of just $200, combined with instant-on functionality that will make it easy to jump into VR and find a friend at any moment. And we also know Microsoft is at least considering adding VR features to its Xbox One consoles.

But what of the Oculus Rift?

The device which arguably kickstarted VR’s renaissance has been on the market as a complete package with hand controllers for less than a year at this point, so it might be premature to discuss potential hardware upgrades. But the reality is that Facebook isn’t just competing against the likes of Microsoft and Google, it is also competing against the clock. Each passing month without a robust install base of VR headset owners makes it hard for inspired VR developers to make rent and feed their families, turning away talent that could help jumpstart a new medium. Meanwhile, each passing month costs Facebook a lot of money.

An update to Rift’s hardware — while still being aggressive with pricing — could multiply the VR install base.

Is Oculus Rift Ready For A Tracking Update?

We know Facebook is planning to release standalone kits to developers in less than a year featuring more convenient tracking technology. The updated “Santa Cruz” prototype headset, which I tried with redesigned hand controllers at Oculus Connect 4, dials up the freedom you can experience in a VR headset while bringing the same ease of use people will enjoy early next year with Oculus Go. It is unlikely, however, we’ll see consumer standalones from Oculus with the same kind of freedom you can experience in an Oculus Rift until 2019 at the earliest. That’s because Facebook’s public timeline only points to the release of developer kits in 2018 for a standalone full freedom of movement VR headset.

This leaves at least a year-long gap where headsets powered by Microsoft’s tracking technology could try undercutting Rift on price while also offering easier set up. That is, unless Oculus releases a new Rift with updated hand controllers and the tracking tech I saw on Santa Cruz.

At OC4 I talked to Nate Mitchell, Oculus co-founder and head of Rift. I expressed to him how frustrating it is to set aside three USB ports on your PC and run cords around your house to three cameras in order to enjoy a fair amount of freedom in an Oculus Rift. I asked him if those things would improve eventually.

“We have more in store for Rift in hardware and software,” Mitchell said. “We know Rift pain points better than anyone. I live Rift’s pain points every single day. I love Rift, I do think it is hands-down the best VR product that’s available at the absolute best price. Can we do better? Absolutely. Are we going to do better? Absolutely.”

My personal experience with Santa Cruz was joyous. Its tracking system did a remarkable job — using four cameras on the headset — to track my hand movement even in weird positions somewhat behind my body. In comparison, headsets powered by Microsoft’s technology only feature two wide angle forward-facing cameras that can miss some of these areas. The Microsoft system does a good job of capturing some movements when your hands aren’t in view, but the four sensor design employed by Oculus seems to offer a much larger tracked volume.

For those unfamiliar, both Santa Cruz and VR headsets based on the tracking technology Microsoft pioneered with its expensive HoloLens AR system use something called “inside-out” tracking. This means the headsets essentially track themselves as they move through space, without any external hardware needed. Current headsets like Rift and Vive require the installation of cameras or spinning lasers around the outside of your room to track a headset and controllers.

“With three external sensors with Rift when you have a full almost room-scale experience, the level of tracking that you’ll get in some of those edge cases is gonna be better [than inside-out tracking],” Mitchell said. “The beauty of Santa Cruz and the beauty of the inside-out tracking solution is that it’s actually pretty rare that you fall into those spots.”

The below photo from an Oculus presentation shows the range of controller tracking possible with the four sensor inside-out approach seen on Santa Cruz.

VR headsets are of course also held back by the limited resolution of their displays, but as PSVR’s adoption has shown, a lower resolution is still acceptable to many buyers. Enthusiasts get a little hung up on a resolution upgrade being a prerequisite to a “Rift 2.0”. I’d argue that cost and the superior ease of use that would come with a headset-based tracking solution is what’s holding back Rift adoption more than the number of pixels on the display. VR headsets need to come in at lower prices and offer easier setup in order to unlock a greater install base, and that’s what Facebook could do with an updated Rift that employs the tracking technology I saw in Santa Cruz.

Such a Rift update would still have a wire and it would still use a PC to power it, but it would be as easy to set up as any of the Microsoft headsets while offering tracking quality in the same ballpark as what you have with a Rift today. If Facebook stayed aggressive with pricing, it might even be able to lower cost a little bit more in this process by eliminating the external cameras.

This is all, of course, mostly conjecture. I don’t have any confirmation of Facebook’s plans beyond indications from Mitchell that he’s aware of what a pain it is to set up cameras around a room and that they have hardware updates planned for Rift in the future.

“Tracking is a fundamental part of a great VR experience especially when you go six degrees of freedom headset, six degrees of freedom controller,” Mitchell said. “You never want your mouse to freeze or disappear or float away…We’re not by any means saying we’ve perfected tracking across the industry or anything like that but we believe it’s a fundamental ingredient and an area where you can’t shortchange the experience.”

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  • mellott124

    I have multiple systems. What I’d like to have is the Oculus Rift comfort, weight, and controllers, with HTC Vive tracking, higher resolution panel, and no lens glare. That would be one hell of a system. Larger FOV would be good too but I don’t need it before the above mentioned improvements.

    • Cl

      I have a vive and the comfort weight and tracking are fine. The wands arent that good, but knuckles controllers should be coming soon. Fov isn’t a problem for me. So pretty much I’d be happy with just better screens, but I think we need better gpus for that to work. My rx480 barely cuts it though and I’m waiting for next gen gpus to upgrade. Also wireless would be nice.

  • Xron

    I can’t see how pixel density isn’t one of the biggest problems…? I have rift and its a bit annoying to play games, watch movies at under 720p…
    For sure Vr price and ease of use are big problems, but if you will try to push 1st gen image quality to 2nd gen, you’ll see sad results.
    We need to hope Nvidia and Amd will offer even more decently priced cards for next gen hmd’s.

    • Blinko23

      I concur. Resolution for me (and many others) is THE MAIN FEATURE that needs vast improvements for gen 2. At least PiMax understands that.

  • Alundre

    What I would love to see is Santa Cruz with a cable that can be plugged into the headset for PC use. Based off the price of the Oculus Go ($200), it is easy to imagine Santa Cruz being closer to $350 since it will include extra cameras and controllers that the Go doesn’t have which puts it directly in the price range of the Rift itself. Sell an addon cable for something like $50 bucks and now you have a mobile VR headset that can also be used with a PC…that would be an amazing product and certainly capable of the Rift 2.0 moniker.

    Folks could buy it today as a mobile headset and when they get their PC’s up to a point where then can run Vr on their systems, all they need is the extra cable to make it happen. Seems like a win-win to me.

    • daveinpublic

      I was also thinking that. But, I was thinking a wireless attachment to the top of Santa Cruz that could stream your computer games on top of the native Santa Cruz games.

      • Alundre

        Even better though I would imagine that would add quite a bit of cost to the final product. Hell, give us both options and let us buy whichever solution we want. It really seems like a no-brainer to me.

      • RFC_VR

        On board Tegra processor wirelessly linked to Cloud based Volta GPU.

        Nvidia is working hard in this area already.

  • impurekind

    At some point I think it would make sense to have an array of cameras going all around the player’s head so there basically wouldn’t be a blind spot for tracking the controllers at all. It would also improve the headset’s tracking in the process too, so it’s a win-win imo.

    • G-man

      except there will always be blind spots because cameras on your head can’t see through your body.

      • VR Geek

        We just need cameras on the controllers themselves.

        • impurekind

          I think a combination of the two would be ideal.

        • G-man

          that will pretty much never be an option. the speed you need to be able to move the controllers is far faster than you can ever move your head. the cameras on the controllers would need to be ultra high shutter speed to get a in focus image, and so need to work in very low light and have no rolling shutter. even if you take a high end dslr camera in your hand and wave your hand around you get just a blur.

      • impurekind

        Well, if there’s multiple cameras around the headset then that doesn’t matter because you obviously don’t physically pass your hands through your body. The multiple cameras would be in such positions that the cameras closest to where your hands are relative to your body would be the ones tracking them, and that would mean there’s not going to be many instances where the controllers would be occluded other than if you deliberately hold one are directly in front of the controller between it and the camera, or maybe you put the controller down and in between your legs so the camera can’t see it or something like that.

  • plrr

    I don’t know if doing away with the Rift sensors is ideal. Maybe they could be an optional add-on? There are at least two important advantages to inward-looking sensors that one needs to consider. The second one is easy to miss.

    Firstly, inside-out tracking solutions like the one we’ve seen with Santa Cruz has limits, and it will lose track of the
    controllers easily in some situations. It has been described as a step
    down from the Rift tracking. Secondly, inward-looking cameras might
    be a relatively easy way of enabling full-body
    tracking, in a way similar to Xbox Kinect. This is one key area of
    VR immersion that is easily overlooked, along with sensors for facial
    expressions.

    I use the Rift with four sensors placed about 2 meters above the floor looking down. The tracking is virtually perfect. You can use a 2.5 m x 2.5 m x 2.5 m tracking volume with this setup, or larger if you’re willing to compromise a little with tracking. It took a while to install the sensors, of course. I use active extension cables that I’ve put up neatly and inconspicuously using cable clips and ducts, and a camera mount and stands. Once properly installed, there are no real drawbacks to having sensors, that I’m aware of.

    • lovethetech

      Sensors is dead. We have to accept that fact.
      Inside-out will improve tremendously in next 12 months.

  • daveinpublic

    “This leaves at least a year-long gap where headsets powered by Microsoft’s tracking technology could try undercutting Rift on price while also offering easier set up. ”

    That’s important and a good summary. Microsoft appears to be selling a very small number of headsets, but if Facebook waits much longer, Microsoft could gain momentum they need. If they want to ensure real success, might be best to just release an updated Oculus Rift with inside out tracking, like you say. It’ll cut down production costs and allow them to compete on price, plus take away MR’s advantage of inside out tracking.

    Maybe that will be part of Santa Cruz’s headset, an HDMI input for PC games to increase the library while headset adoption begins. And that could be why Oculus doesn’t want to add inside out tracking to Rift, to give Santa Cruz one killer feature. Otherwise, people might just get a Rift, and the Santa Cruz mobile library would linger. This way, the momentum goes to Santa Cruz, and with it, the developers.

    At least Facebook is positioning itself well with a clear roadmap. It’s just a matter of time before the fight gets interesting.

    • 12Danny123

      Microsoft isn’t selling small. They have a PC monopoly, they will use that PC monopoly via PC OEMs to gain a dominance.

  • Rogue Transfer

    Article omitted the $200 price reduction on the HTC Vive to $600. That’s pretty poor journalism.

  • Jim P

    Tpcast has This handled. Once they actually ship there product out . I’d prefer better resolution.

  • RFC_VR

    “There isn’t a compelling reason to spend 20 hours a day in VR”.

    Content is king. It’s sorely lacking. Price is not as critical as we might think…if you give people something so compelling they must do it, they will buy into it. People spend £1000s on home cinema and audiophile hi-fi because there is so much good content both movies and music albums.

    Even if priced at £200 there isn’t enough to do to see mass adoption of VR, vicious circle of low installed base/unprofitable to build content.

  • Paul Schuyler

    “The truth is that the biggest issue facing VR adoption continues to be cost.” I don’t agree with this statement. In my experience, the issue is comfort…almost entirely visual comfort. Although resolution seems like its a good target, I think that’s only half the picture. We need headsets that are very high fidelity, and that resolve convergence and accommodation, that are natural to experience visually. To me, all of VR consumer adoption hangs on the state of headset tech, which isn’t even close to good enough presently. I say this because I’m a hard core early adopter, and yet I don’t use it that much. It just doesn’t feel that good.

    No computer tech in history has asked us to suspend our entire visual field to its ends. In the 80’s and 90’s someone could look at a computer of the day and remark how geeky it all seemed, why would someone spend so much time with that? But that computer geek could just turn and look out the window, or take a break and interact with others. But with VR the bar is set 100 times higher, because you are fully immersed in a less-than-high-fidelity world. Although its made great advances, a great percentage of our brains are devoted to a nuanced, high-fidelity visual experience, and VR is asking you to trade that in for this experience. So that keeps the experiences cool but short, to 30 minutes or under. Simulations? Sure, for a while. Arcade experiences? Sure. But watching a movie or social interactions…not really. The day that you can experience a stunning, satisfying high-fidelity sunset in a headset or work all day long in the thing is the day that the consumers will come in droves.

    • James Clerk Maxwell

      You nailed it. This is exactly what I also think. Visual comfort must be greatly improved. What I experienced with VR is great eye fatigue. Resolution plays a part in it but also stereoscopic vision with the vergence accomodation conflict. Let’s remember 3D TVs : their stereoscopy gave headaches.

  • jimsimonz

    Seems to me someone should try the business model that kicked off smartphones, so low up front cost and subscription based contract, this got millions of people using phones they wouldn’t have paid 500 up front for.

    • G-man

      except when smart phones first came out that wasnt really a thing and people just bought them, and even when that did start the phones still had a large up front cost even with a contract. so the exact same is happpening with vr. the people that really want them are paying for new tech and in a few years time the tech will be cheaper and everyone can afford it.

      • jimsimonz

        In the UK that’s at least how the iPhone and competitors rolled out.

        • G-man

          “The Apple phones costs £269 and the minimum monthly contract with O2 is £35.” no, you had to buy it locked into a contract. doesnt mean you got it free with a contract back then

          • jimsimonz

            Yep this is exactly what I meant in my original comment 🙂

  • Firestorm185

    I’d love to see a Tethered Cruz too.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I’m still hopeful that they will release it (Santa Cruz) to developers in the fall, and consumers in the winter. I’m surprised how many people on here want a cord! I can only assume it’s because you already have a expensive pc, and you need to be able to justify owning it, and VR is that reason. As someone who’s owned a Vive & now owns an Odyssey, I like VR, but a stand alone HMD is the thing I want, everything built in, headphones/tracking/battery. So I can pick it up and take it with me whenever I want, and being able to walk around my living room untethered (instead of feeling like a human vacuum cleaner). I’ve never owned an Oculus product, but I like the direction they are going with Santa Cruz, and a year from now, they might have some of my money, in their pocket.

  • Dan Davis

    What I want to see is better display on the VR headsets, it is so pixalated at the moment and reminds me of the early plasma TV. I don’t care at this moment whether it had wires on or not, just please update the resolution on the display, I can live with wires for now, we’ve grown up with wires everywhere just improve where it matters, on the screen.

  • I think it all depends on how fast they can develop Santa Cruz. The true magic would be if Santa Cruz were a hybrid device, that can plugged to the PC for high performances and unplugged for standalone usage. That could make it a magical CV2

  • gothicvillas

    I dont care if its wired and would rather buy a wired HMD if it offers higher resolution.