Why Palmer is wrong about VR gaming

Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey recently told Re/code that virtual reality will initially be mostly for hard-core gamers.

The headset is expensive, and the computer hardware needed to run virtual reality applications is even more so — the total price is expected to come in at around $1,500.

But you’ll be able to play games such as EVE: Valkyrie. This is the trailer:

However, Luckey is making some pretty big assumptions there.

He’s equating virtual reality with the Oculus, and he’s equating virtual reality with gaming.

Once you do that, then yes, given the price tag, Oculus Rift games will probably be first played by people who have the latest hardware, and who have the extra money to spend on the headset and any other necessary peripherals.

But virtual reality is about more than just gaming, and is more than just the Oculus Rift.

And from that perspective, the use cases of virtual reality become very dramatically different.

For example, more than a million people already have a virtual reality headset, in the form of the Google Cardboard or one of the many compatible devices.

One of the nicer Google Cardboard-compatible headsets -- the smartphone slides right in.
One of the nicer Google Cardboard-compatible headsets — the smartphone slides right in.

Obviously, they’re not using the headsets for hard-core gaming, because these headsets can’t support hardcore gaming. Instead, they allow people to see 3D photographs, watch immersive, 3D videos, and play simple, single-person games and simulations.

Some examples of these include:

  • virtual concert footage, such as the Paul McCartney concert last fall
  • virtual test drives, such as that for the Volvo XC90
  • virtual real estate tours, such as that of the Panoptic Group, among many others
  • roller coaster simulations and similar ride-based experiences
  • simple shooter games

Check out 29 fun virtual reality apps for the iPhone here. There are also a few hundred Google Cardboard-compatible apps available for Android devices.

The Cmoar Roller Coaster VR offers a fun, action-packed ride.
The Cmoar Roller Coaster VR offers a fun, action-packed ride.

These virtual reality experiences are lacking in many respects compared to the full-scale ones that will eventually be available for the Oculus Rift. Since smartphones have less computing power — for now, at least — the experiences aren’t as good when it comes to graphics or interactivity. And because lag is a very big issue with mobile devices, multi-player experiences are almost completely out of the picture.

But they also offer some very significant advantages.

Low cost. Many companies are offering the cardboard headsets for free. Prices on Amazon start at around $4, and nicer headsets made from more durable materials are available for $20 and up.

Quick to play. Most of the virtual reality apps for smartphones are short games, rides, or simulations. Since it takes time for people to get used to virtual reality, this is actually a significant advantage. People get to try out virtual reality in short doses.

Everyone has a smartphone. Or almost everyone. Even in emerging economies, there are some very, very inexpensive smartphones available.

Smartphones get replaced frequently. People try to get as much use as the can out of their desktops or consoles, and typically wait a few years to upgrade or replace them. But people upgrade their phones every other year, or more often. That means that the technology develops a lot faster than desktops or consoles do.

Great for marketing. Since everyone has a smartphone already, and the Cardboard holders are so cheap, marketers can get their experiences out to a lot of people. They can give away Cardboards in stores and showrooms for example, or on their websites. Volvo gave away Cardboard headsets, for example, to generate interest for its Volvo XC90 demo. And next month, smartphone maker OnePlus is giving away headsets so that people can virtually attend the release of their next phone.

Maria Korolov