Affordable VR

Today if you want to play with virtual reality (VR), you need at least two things: a VR headset and a computer that works with it.

The best-known VR headset is the Oculus Rift. It’s not yet commercially available, but the DK2 (Development Kit 2) version can be purchased for $350 USD. You also need a computer that can render good-quality 3D graphics in real-time. Most desktop computers won’t work. You need a “gaming computer” and those cost $700 or more. Already that’s more than $1000 just to try VR. That’s way beyond what most people will spend on a whim, or even for a Christmas present.

Oculus partnered with Samsung to make a headset based on a Samsung smartphone. It’s called the Gear VR. It only works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, which costs about $600 USD unlocked. You also need the head-mount thing from Oculus, which costs $200 USD. In other words, even that option is quite expensive (unless you already own a Galaxy Note 4, which you probably don’t).

There are competitors to the Oculus options, but I have to think they’ll all be in the same price bracket: too expensive for most people.

What can be done to bring the cost down? I see two options: cloud rendering and cheap mobile clients.

Cloud rendering (also called “cloud gaming” or “game streaming”) is where you do all the 3D rendering in a remote server farm, and send a video stream back to the user. The user doesn’t need a gaming computer. All they need is a computer that can decode video fast. Instead of buying a gaming computer, they just pay a subscription fee (around $15 per month). It’s an idea that’s been around for years, and there are some options available today (e.g. PlayStation Now), but it’s still not mainstream. That could change.

Cheap mobile VR clients could be smartphones, something like the Gear VR, but much less expensive. Ideally, any new-enough smartphone would work. People already have those. All they’d need is the head mount thing, and that could be made for cheap. The mobile app could be free.

There is hope for affordable VR. In fact, if you were planning on spending $1000+ to try VR soon, it might be prudent to wait a few years.