VR is Finally Here

The Oculus Rift has taken a long and winding road to its first full release. The gadget began as a bulky Kickstarter project nearly four years ago; it’s now a highly anticipated headset boosted by multiple billions in Facebook money.

And today, the final, consumer-ready version of the Rift arrives ready to show virtual reality’s promise to the world — as well as the hurdles that consumer VR still has to overcome.

The Oculus Rift is a masterwork of design that makes virtual reality both jaw-droppingly beautiful and necessarily comfortable. But it still isn’t for everyone. That’s by design; those with powerful Windows PCs will be the ones leading the virtual reality charge, and they’ll most likely be instrumental in spreading its doctrine to those who aren’t immediately interested in strapping on a giant headset.

But those who have been drinking the VR Kool-Aid these last few years will be excited to finally step into virtual reality that feels seamless. And after a long run of being relegated to conferences like CES or E3, the Rift proves that immersive virtual reality is finally on the path toward true accessibility.

The world first met Oculus Rift via Kickstarter in August 2012. Back then, the headset was targeted strictly at developers; after a few failed attempts in the 1990s, most people thought of VR as a gimmick, or a science-fiction plot device.

But Oculus VR — and its then-19-year-old founder Palmer Luckey — believed that virtual reality had a future as a next-level gaming accessory. PC gaming is a luxury hobby; buying or building computers that can run high-end games can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 and beyond. It’s a pastime that naturally appeals to people interested in technology — and with VR, game developers had an opportunity to make something new and exciting for those early adaptors.

Three years and change later, Oculus (now owned by Facebook) offers the promise of VR experiences that go beyond games — though many of them are tailored for the company’s lightweight, mobile-phone powered Gear VR headset (made in partnership with Samsung).

By contrast, everything about the Rift feels counter to the consumer-friendly Gear, from the amount of physical space and high-end computer power it requires to the Xbox controller that comes with it. This gadget still embraces its strategic appeal to serious game lovers. Oculus has come to enhance play.

That’s clutch, because running the Oculus Rift takes a lot of PC power. Someone who already owns a gaming rig still may need to spend $200 or more to get their graphics card the necessary updates; starting from scratch will cost about $1,000.

The Oculus Ready PC program, which offers computers from several manufacturers that are guaranteed to be able to run the headset, is exceedingly accessible — provided you have the cash to dive in. This all comes on top of the Rift’s hefty $600 price tag, which immediately makes the device too expensive for a wide swath of people — even as a splurge purchase or holiday gift.

And while the vast majority of computer gaming takes place in Windows already, many Mac owners will be miffed to learn that their expensive computers can’t run VR. (Luckey and other Oculus team members say there aren’t really any Macs with graphics cards powerful enough for the Rift, so Mac support isn’t a priority right now.)

For those who already have the hardware — or have plunked down the cash to get up to speed — the Oculus Rift is positioned as serious game material. Its launch lineup includes 30 games of all shapes and sizes, a couple of five-minute short films produced by Oculus … and not much else. That game-only focus speaks volumes about who its target audience is.

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