The announcement ends months of speculation that the release, which had been anticipated to happen by the end of 2015, would slip beyond Christmas. The most high profile device in the virtual reality market, Oculus Rift has been developed primarily for gaming but the technology is also being explored for occupational therapy, education and by film makers.
“Extremely excited to announce that the Oculus Rift will be shipping Q1 2016! We can’t wait to get it in your hands,” tweeted Nate Mitchell, vice president of product at Oculus VR, which Facebook bought for $2bn in 2013.
Oculus VR’s blog followed up with more confirmation, noting that the consumer model “builds on the presence, immersion, and comfort of the Crescent Bay prototype with an improved tracking system that supports both seated and standing experiences, as well as a highly refined industrial design, and updated ergonomics for a more natural fit”.
“In the weeks ahead, we’ll be revealing the details around hardware, software, input, and many of our unannounced made-for-VR games and experiences coming to the Rift. Next week, we’ll share more of the technical specifications here on the Oculus blog.”
No price has been confirmed, although pre-orders will start later in 2015.
Mitchell is due to speak at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York later in the day, where he is likely to provide more details on Oculus’ plans, as well as those of its parent company.
Oculus Rift certainly will not have the virtual reality market to itself in 2016. Sony is launching its Morpheus VR headset for PlayStation 4 in the first half of that year, having recently shown off a prototype that is close to a final consumer version.
Oculus VR’s technology is already available in the form of the Gear VR, a smartphone-powered headset launched by Samsung and Oculus. Meanwhile, games firm Valve is making a VR headset with HTC called the Vive VR, which will launch later in 2015.
Apple is also eyeing the virtual reality market, having been awarded a patent for a head-mounted display device which an iPhone slots into, while Google has launched its own Google Cardboard project for build-it-yourself headsets using Android devices.
The related field of augmented reality (AR) headsets is also heating up thanks to devices like Microsoft’s Hololens and the plans of Magic Leap, a startup that has raised $542m of funding from Google and other investors.
Expectations that Oculus Rift would go on sale to the general public in 2015 have been high for some time, but Oculus VR has been backing away from the idea in recent months, as it finalised its plans.
“We are not going to ship it until we get it right, and we don’t want that to be four or five years from now. We want it to be soon. We’re getting much closer: we like to say it’s months, not necessarily years away,” said chief executive Brendan Iribe at the Web Summit conference in November 2014.
“It’s many months, not just a few months. Crescent Bay, I’ll go on the record as saying that hardware-wise for the headset, it’s arguably almost there for the consumer product, and now there are some other parts.”
During Facebook’s last quarterly earnings call with analysts in April, chief financial officer David Wehner was also careful not to promise a 2015 release.
“We have not announced any specific plans for shipment volumes in 2015 related to Oculus,” he said. “I just know that Oculus is very much in the development stage so it’s early to be talking about large shipment volumes.”
When Oculus VR was an independent startup, its focus was firmly on games. Facebook has wider ambitions for the Rift, however.
“This is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home,” wrote chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in March 2014.
“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
Facebook confirmed in February 2015 that it was “working on apps for VR”, with chief product officer Chris Cox citing experiences such as flying a fighter jet or sitting in a Mongolian yurt as inspiration, and describing the technology as “sending a fuller picture … You’ll do it, Beyoncé will do it”.
The following month, chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer talked up the technology behind Oculus Rift at Facebook’s f8 conference.
“After thousands of demos we know we are just on the cusp, just getting there to get that sense of presence where for a moment your conscious brain is overruled by the subconscious that says: ‘You are not where you think you are,’” he said.
Developers and creators have been getting to grips with the prototypes of VR headsets and planning their own uses beyond gaming, too.
Those include medical therapy, education and filmmaking, with Oculus VR having already set up its own division called Story Studio staffed by a team of veterans from companies like Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic to explore VR movies.
Its first short film, the four-minute Lost, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “This is cinema running in a game engine in real time,” said Iribe at the time.
There have already been music virtual reality apps from The Who, Paul McCartney and Björk, while filmmaker Chris Milk is releasing documentaries through his own VRSE startup in partnership with Vice, exploring VR’s potential for journalism.
“With virtual reality, I’m not interested in the novelty factor,” he told the Guardian in January 2015. “I’m interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium we’ve had before to connect one human being to another.”
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