Report: Facebook Readying $200 Standalone VR Headset

As I referenced in today’s piece about the future of Oculus on Samsung VR hardware, Facebook is going to launch a $200 standalone VR headset. This according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman.

That Facebook would do this, if in fact they are, should come as no surprise. Oculus Rift has been around for a few years, and Facebook slashed its price by half over the past four months. Rift also has to be plugged into a high-end Windows PC to work, and main competitors Google, HTC, Lenovo, and Samsung have all announced their own standalone VR headsets for launch later this year.

A few other bits from Gurman’s report bear some quick analysis:

The new headset will have a similar interface to Samsung’s VR Gear and can be controlled by a wireless remote. Facebook has said it’s also working on a prototype device code-named Santa Cruz that’s basically a wireless Rift, with the full power of the original device sans PC.

Two tiers: The original Rift, perhaps soon with a wireless upgrade, for developers and enthusiasts, and; The new standalone model for more casual users.

Oculus has plans to enlist China’s Xiaomi and its network of contract manufacturers to produce the new headset for global distribution, people familiar with the arrangement said. The device will feature Oculus branding around the world, except a custom version for China will feature Xiaomi branding and run some Xiaomi software applications, the people said. Hugo Barra, recently put in charge of Oculus’s VR products, was previously a Xiaomi executive. Xiaomi declined to comment.

The company plans to begin briefing content makers, such as video game designers, on the device by October so that the product’s application store could launch with compatible games, one of the people said. The downloads store will be re-written and accessible from the virtual reality interface itself, this person said.

That first sentence is smart business and shouldn’t be surprising. It’s what Apple’s doing with ARKit right now, and how you do a good platform launch in 2017.

The second sentence is, in a nutshell, the key to why the coming class of consumer-level standalone headsets has a chance at really taking off. Pro VR rigs like Rift and HTC Vive are expensive and complicated for the casual user to setup and maintain. Phone-based VR systems like Gear VR and Google Cardboard are cheaper and easier to dive into, but they’re based on a user experience originally designed for touch screen computing, not immersive computing.

I’m pretty experienced with consumer gadgetry, and phones in particular. I still get frustrated and run into road blocks using Gear VR with my Samsung Galaxy phones. VR puts a ton of strain on a phone’s CPU, GPU and battery, and running VR software atop a phone’s base OS can lead to all kinds of issues. System-level notifications interrupting a VR experience can ruin the effect. Background apps eating up resources can bring your VR environment crashing to a halt, period.

A task-specific VR rig running hardware and software built for nothing else should theoretically be much easier to use than a VR layer woven into a phone’s stack. Much will depend on the quality of user experience, starting with the Oculus store. It’s not bad currently, but it needs to be simpler and offer more (optional) hand holding for novices if Facebook really wants their new headset to make waves.