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What’s Causing the VR Pre-Order Backlog?

Facebook's Oculus Rift consumer edition ships in 2016.Facebook's Oculus Rift consumer edition ships in 2016.
Facebook's Oculus Rift consumer edition ships in 2016.Oculus VR

Want to be the first on your block to own a virtual reality headset? You’ve got to act fast—really, really fast.

When HTC (HTC) launched pre-orders for its Vive device on Monday, customers were told they would receive it in April. By the end of the day, though, people placing orders were informed they’d have to wait until May. (Expect that date to creep later and later as days and weeks go by.)

It was a replay of what happened when Facebook-owned (FB) Oculus opened up advance sales for the Rift. The first people to order are supposed to receive units later this month. But if you head to the site today, you’re not going to get your hands on one until July.

Those extending wait times have caused some enthusiast outlets to breathlessly exclaim HTC and Oculus are “sold out” of their VR headsets. But that’s not really true. It’s actually a combination of cautious planning by the manufacturers and higher-than-anticipated demand.

To understand the situation best, you don’t need to look much further than any big video game console launch. Supply is always constrained in these events, in part to generate buzz.

“Hardware typically is always supply constrained in the beginning,” said Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Capital. “They’re learning about inventory, they’re learning about manufacturing, and it never hurts to have units that are hard to get.”

Demand for headsets appears high at first glance. Within the first 10 minutes of availability, HTC got pre-orders for 15,000 units, according to HTC’s Shen Ye. While Oculus has not been as forthcoming with hard numbers, founder Palmer Luckey, speaking at a CES event a few days after the headset went on sale, did say that “pre-orders are going much better than I ever could have possibly expected”.

But despite the hype, pre-order numbers are just a drop in the overall bucket. Right now, no brick and mortar (or other online) retailers are taking orders for either device. Furthermore, the mass audience for VR won’t think about buying a headset until they’ve experienced it themselves and the prices come down.

Also, because virtual reality is such a new technology—and such a highly priced one—the manufacturers of these headsets may have been deliberately conservative in their initial production runs. Backing that theory up is the profit margins on hardware—or the lack thereof, if you believe Luckey’s statements on the matter.

Schachter said he expects any supply issues to be largely resolved by the time the holiday season hits. At that point, retailers like GameStop (GME) and Best Buy (BBY) are more likely to have the hardware in stores and online orders will be a small percentage of overall sales.

Of course, ultimately, the success or failure of virtual reality won’t come down to the number of headsets sold. Like any hardware device, it will be software that determines whether it moves from an interesting fad to a real force in the entertainment world. Until then, we won’t have any real idea about the success or failure of those metrics until quite some time after people have the headsets in their homes.