Right now, the best virtual reality gear is available in just two flavors: Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. And coupled with a powerful tower PC, the whole experience will set you back about $2,000.
But that’s about to change, as Microsoft has rounded up a bunch of traditional PC manufacturers to produce VR headsets of their own. As highlighted by TechCrunch, Microsoft announced that Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Acer will all begin making Windows-compatible VR headsets that plug into a computer. The kicker? They’ll start at $299.
That’s half the price of an Oculus Rift, and even $100 less than Sony’s PlayStation VR, which is perhaps the most mainstream-friendly VR package anyone’s developed to date. But the announcement is more important from the sheer mass of manufacturers who’ve announced intent to develop VR headsets, which will quickly commoditize the market, making VR a gadget as dumb as a mouse or a monitor. Sure, tiny bits of quality will vary manufacturer to manufacturer—they’ll look different, feel different, and will likely even have different resolution specs. But it’s easy to imagine Dell bundling its budget VR headset with a laptop, and a high-end VR headset with a performance PC, essentially flooding the market with an option for every taste and price point.
Now look, I know, no one is going to tune in to see Acer’s next live stream announcing their VR headset. That’s not the point. Nor am I saying that, just because all these manufacturers are jumping on VR, it will definitely succeed at wooing the mass market and selling tens of millions of units in the next few years. Not at all. Indeed, the reverse may happen.
In fact, I see this development as parallel to what happened with PDAs or netbooks. A few hit the market, got some decent momentum driven by the press, and just seemed downright neat to consumers. Then all the PC manufacturers jumped onboard to create products in these categories. They reached a low level of ubiquity. But we still don’t use PDAs or netbooks today largely because they just weren't perfected ideas yet. PDAs were often disconnected from the internet, hard to input anything into, and often another thing to carry on top of a cell phone. Netbooks had hilariously tiny screens that their desktop operating systems had difficulty scaling down to, and the ergonomics of typing on tiny keyboard simply didn't create a pleasant experience for more than a few minutes. Each device was so early on the technological curve that the design curve hadn't caught up yet.
However, PDAs and netbooks both succeeded in that they pointed to a future trend—a new step of mobile computing beyond the laptop. These devices were poorly articulated proofs of concept, the lessons of which would be cemented by the improved UX of modern smartphones and tablets. Nobody uses a PDA, but what is the iPhone? Nobody uses a netbook, but what is the Microsoft Surface?
Similarly, if HP makes a VR headset, that signals to me that VR—in some capacity—is around to stay. Frankly, that future, 10 or 20 years from now, isn’t going to be a bulky headset plugged into a PC. More likely—and a lot of designers I’ve spoken to agree on this point—we’ll experience VR on a gradient with augmented reality (or interfaces that live within our world view). Sometimes we’ll want the full immersion of VR, climbing the peaks of Everest with virtual frost in our beards. But other times—in fact most of the time—we’ll want to make dinner and just want the least obtrusive audio or visual cues as to how long and at what temperature it needs to cook.
In this regard, Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Acer are doing what they do best, serving as a sort of mortar in the technology industry, ensuring whatever new trend consumers want to try is available in just about any flavor they might want to try it, creating ubiquity via pure force of SKU.
Meanwhile, it’s all an especially good play for Microsoft. Because all of these new VR headsets they’ll support? They will run off the same core software as Hololens, Microsoft’s future AR platform—because Microsoft has designed Windows support broader than VR alone, knowing the future is more malleable than Oculus might admit. And that software layer will probably be the only thing left standing when the experimentation and hype around all of these bulky headsets gels from a PDA into an iPhone.