When Should Devs Start Building for Oculus?

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As tech products go, Oculus Rift has undergone an extra-long hype cycle, ever since its initial Kickstarter campaign racked up $2.5 million from donors in 2012.

Now the consumer version of Oculus is in the wild. It’s a milestone in the evolution of virtual reality as a viable concept. And for tech pros, the existence of a VR device with major financial backing (courtesy of Facebook, its corporate owner) raises a very big question: when—if ever—will this technology become mainstream, to the point where it’s worth investing time and money into creating apps for it?

As multiple reviews have pointed out over the last day, Oculus Rift isn’t the only high-end VR headset coming to market over the next year—the HTC Vive, for example, is available for pre-order ahead of its April release date. But for those who opt for an Oculus over those rivals, the experience isn’t cheap: in addition to the headset itself, retailing for $599, users must have a high-end PC with the following specs:

  • Graphics card: NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD R9 290 equivalent or greater
  • Processor: Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
  • Memory: 8GB+ RAM
  • Output: Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
  • Input: 3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port
  • Operating system: Windows 7 SP1 64 bit or newer

That’s a pretty high-end gaming rig, the kind that costs far more than your standard-issue laptop or desktop.

And the initial audience for Oculus is, indeed, high-end gamers. The available applications at launch are almost all games, including the much-touted “EVE: Valkyrie,” a space combat sim in which you sit in the cockpit of a spacecraft, blowing space-rivals into little bits.

That’s not to say that all early virtual-reality platforms are gaming-focused, or could only attract relatively small audiences at the outset. Google Cardboard, the low-priced answer to Oculus, focuses for the large part on immersive experiences; the Cardboard New York Times app, for example, plunges you into real-world environments such as an African refugee camp. The cheapness of Cardboard (it’s made out of cardboard!) and its reliance on a smartphone as a VR screen have already guaranteed its dissemination to many thousands of people.

For the moment, Oculus seems locked on games—and needs developers to participate in its ecosystem if it wants to break out of the niche. As demonstrated by smartphones and, to a lesser degree, smartwatches, a device can’t survive unless it grows a substantial collection of software that people actually want to use. So when will other developers and companies plunge into the fray with non-gaming apps?

That’s the multi-billion-dollar question, and the answer depends largely on how fast the price of VR dips to more mainstream levels. For the moment, developers have a choice: plunge into the market early, and risk a relatively small audience in exchange for lots of development effort—or join once the respective virtual-reality ecosystems have grown to enormous and sustaining size, by which point it might prove more difficult to establish a toehold in a crowded marketplace.