Face­book plan­ning $200 VR wire­less head­set for 2018

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - MARK GUR­MAN

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Face­book is tak­ing an­other stab at turn­ing its Ocu­lus Rift vir­tual-re­al­ity head­set into a mass-mar­ket phe­nom­e­non.

Later this year, the com­pany plans to un­veil a cheaper, wire­less de­vice that the com­pany is bet­ting will pop­u­lar­ize VR the way Ap­ple did the smart­phone.

Cur­rently VR hard­ware comes in two flavours: cheap head­sets that turn smart­phones into vir­tual-re­al­ity play­ers (like Sam­sung’s US$130 Gear VR) and high-end gam­ing rigs (like Face­book’s $400 Ocu­lus Rift) that hook up to $1,000-plus desk­top com­put­ers. Face­book’s new head­set is de­signed to bridge the gap — a de­vice that will sell for as lit­tle as $200 and need not be teth­ered to a PC or phone, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with its de­vel­op­ment. It will ship next year and rep­re­sent an en­tirely new cat­e­gory.

Like cur­rent Ocu­lus prod­ucts, the new head­set will be geared to­ward im­mer­sive gam­ing, watch­ing video and so­cial net­work­ing, said the peo­ple who asked not to be named to dis­cuss a pri­vate mat­ter.

Code-named “Pa­cific,” the de­vice re­sem­bles a more com­pact ver­sion of the Rift and will be lighter than Sam­sung’s Gear VR head­set, one of the peo­ple said. The de­vice’s de­sign and fea­tures aren’t fi­nal­ized and could still change, but the idea is that some­one will be able to pull the head­set out of their bag and watch movies on a flight just the way you can now with a phone or tablet.

At Ocu­lus’s de­vel­oper con­fer­ence last year, Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg de­scribed a “sweet spot” for a de­vice that sits be­tween the Gear VR and Rift. “This is the kind of thing that we be­lieve will ex­ist,” he said.

In an emailed state­ment, Ocu­lus spokesper­son Alan Cooper said: “We don’t have a prod­uct to un­veil at this time, how­ever we can con­firm we’re mak­ing sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ments in the stand­alone VR cat­e­gory.”

Ocu­lus built its first pro­to­type in 2010, back when it was still a Kick­starter-funded startup. In 2014, Face­book ac­quired the com­pany for about $2 bil­lion. To­day, the global mar­ket for VR head­sets re­mains tiny. In the first quar­ter, hard­ware mak­ers shipped 2.3 mil­lion of the de­vices, ac­cord­ing to IDC, com­pared with 347 mil­lion smart­phones. Buggy hard­ware, pricey head­sets and in­suf­fi­cient con­tent are all hold­ing back mass adop­tion.

That’s start­ing to change as the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of de­vices starts to roll out. Last year, Sony de­buted the PlayS­ta­tion VR, a $500 head­set that has sold close to a mil­lion units and taps the com­pany’s gam­ing and en­ter­tain­ment ecosys­tem. Mean­while, HTC Corp. and Len­ovo Group, which both use Google’s Day­dream OS, are work­ing on their own stand­alone head­sets and ex­pect to re­lease them this year. Ditto for Sam­sung, which uses Ocu­lus tech­nol­ogy.

Also gear­ing up is Ap­ple Inc., which is bet­ting on aug­mented-re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy that lays maps, text mes­sages and more over the real world — a bet that most con­sumers won’t want to be iso­lated in­side VR head­sets.

Right now Sam­sung leads the pack with about 22 per cent of the global VR mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to IDC. Face­book’s Ocu­lus Rift is in fourth place.

If Face­book can get the new hard­ware right, it has some key ad­van­tages, in­clud­ing a vi­brant ecosys­tem of down­load­able VR games and apps, plus en­thu­si­as­tic devel­op­ers who gather in the thou­sands each year at the com­pany’s Ocu­lus Con­nect con­fer­ence.

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