Nate Mitchell knows the question is coming. As co-founder and vice president of product for Oculus, he gets it a lot – especially at an event like CES.
But no matter how you ask it, he still won’t say when the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that has been building buzz for the past two years, will finally – officially – hit store shelves. He’ll drop hints – saying that a consumer version is “getting close” and that there’s “absolutely a chance” that it will go on sale by the end of the year – but that’s as far as he’s willing to go.
There are a few things starting to settle, though. First off, price – which Mitchell says will be in the $300-$400 range. And, if online buzz and sales of Samsung’s Gear VR (a joint venture with Oculus that came out last year) are any indicator, there’s healthy demand out there for VR products. (Gear VR sold out, says Mitchell, but he declined to give hard numbers.)
Oculus, which was purchased by Facebook (FB) last year for $2 billion, is the industry’s top player, but it’s far from the only name in VR.
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Sony (SNE) has publicly shown its Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4 (though it hasn’t officially declared it a forthcoming product yet). Google (GOOG) dipped a toe into the market last year, releasing specs allowing people to build their own headset out of cardboard. And there were several new headsets on display at CES this year.
Some of them – many, in fact – aren’t very good. They’re being made by companies and entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of the building excitement over VR before the Rift and other high profile systems come out. (Among those is the 3DHead, a system from billionaire Alki David that The Verge called “insanely terrible.”)
“Smaller companies are rushing to get out there first – and that can poison the well,” says Mitchell. “Fortunately, I don’t think anyone has poisoned it yet. … [But] what everyone is showing is it’s easy to do poorly.”
Some companies putting out headsets have wider ambitions though. Earlier this week, high-end PC peripheral company Razer announced its own VR headset alongside an initiative called OSVR – which Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan calls “the Android of VR”.
OSVR is a software platform that includes multiple game engines and displays. And so far, roughly two dozen companies have signed on to use it – with plug-ins for Unreal Engine 4 and Unity 3D, two of the game industry’s biggest backend systems, on the way. The idea is games won’t necessarily be tied to just one headset, but can instead create a larger ecosystem of titles for customers.
“This is the first time someone has gotten everyone in VR together,” says Tan. “We think this is going to accelerate everything. … If everyone continues with this fragmented market, it’s going to take a long time to hit the market.”
Oculus isn’t taking part in OSVR, though. Mitchell says that while the idea is a good one in the long term, the market is too immature for the initiative to do much good now.
“You need multiple VR headsets out there that have matured before a specification is warranted or helpful,” he says. “We need a couple of great headsets – and as they start to align, that’s when a specification makes sense.”
Before any headset can succeed, though, there needs to be content – which is part of the reason so many major names are dragging their feet with commercial versions. But both game developers and filmmakers are working to create finished products for VR systems – and Oculus is working to nail down what the minimum system specs will be for VR development. Once that’s done and there is a catalog of polished products, the release date – and commercial product – will likely soon follow.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” says Mitchell. “Without an audience, it doesn’t make sense to develop content, but without content, there’s no audience. … The cool thing about VR is it’s new and fresh – and we don’t know what the killer app is going to be.”
Chris Morris is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in video games, consumer electronics and personal finance.