Oculus Rift at E3 2014: Well, That Was Disappointing

By Gerald Lynch on at

Virtual reality -- it's the future of gaming, a way to immerse ourselves in our favourite games as never experienced before. Why then at this year's E3 was the VR star, the Oculus Rift, so largely absent from proceedings?

It's the biggest date in the gaming calendar and, for the first time in years, the emphasis had shifted from the big three's (Microsoft's, Sony's and Nintendo's) hardware assault to their software offerings. The stage was set for the Oculus Rift to be the standout piece of gaming hardware with which to wow the crowds. But its presence was minimal, and any exciting exposure for the device was offered up almost solely by third-party developers as an aside to their main servings.

This was an opportunity for the Oculus Rift team to nail down answers to questions gamers have asked ever since its KickStarter was first revealed. When will it be available to buy? How much will it cost? What big-name games will be supporting it? Aside from an infuriatingly vague "2015" release date, this information and fresh games for the kit in notable volume were sadly absent.

"Overall it still doesn't feel like Oculus are positioning the Rift as a retail product," our pal Leon, Kotaku UK news editor, told us.

"It still seems like a toy people are messing about with and this E3 didn't change that. Off the top of my head the only coverage I really saw prominently was from a Rift version of Alien: Isolation, and that was mainly through social chatter rather than an official channel.

"According to Oculus' own plans it's going to be out next year so it really needs to be re-positioning itself from 'cool toy' to 'actual product people will have in their homes'. I would have expected to see concrete apps, games and a more solid branding that the less tech savvy could grasp (just try explaining it to your parents. Not the tech but the software). At the moment it still feels like a hacker's plaything to be modded and messed with by devs rather than used by everyday consumers."

The Oculus Rift has competition in the VR space in the form of Sony's Project Morpheus, intended as a companion accessory to the company's PS4 console. Despite being available on the show floor, it too suffered from a lacklustre E3 appearance, given only the most cursory of nods during Sony's showcase. Sony's plans for its accessory are even less certain than those of the Rift -- at best, it'll be a long time until we see it made commercially available, and at worst it could prove to be little more than vapourware as Sony looks for conceptual ways to maintain the momentum the PlayStation 4 has built up.

Introducing new hardware to supplement an existing experience is always difficult. It's a chicken and egg scenario: in the case of the Rift, it needs to convince developers that investing in its equipment will lead to a greater return on their games, something that's difficult without an existing install base to work against. (Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, for what it's worth, is looking to shift "north of one million" units for the first version of the headset). But from a developer's point of view it's risky to spend the time and money working on a premium Rift experience when the device (despite the excitement surrounding it) remains largely unproven commercially - especially in relation to its effect on sales of supported software, of which there's no data at present to work against.

It's a leap of faith, and with the Rift (so far at least) only supporting PC games -- a platform rife with piracy -- and Iribe foolishly already talking up the second-generation kit before he's even sold the first one, developers may be wary. It's easy to get bedroom modders without a monetary investment in development to get excited, but it's another case entirely when it comes to big business boardroom meetings and the deployment of resources.

Facebook's involvement is of course now a major factor to consider. Mark Zuckerberg is apparently keen to sell the device almost at cost, and its influence is already seeing Iribe's team subtly shifting its interests beyond gaming. Some will argue that it's no longer ultimately even about the games for the Rift anymore, now that Facebook is in control.

But, as Leon suggests, Oculus's weak presence may be down to less troubling reasons, with Facebook preparing Oculus's own standalone marketing blitz away from the noise and competition of E3. "I'd imagine Facebook has a branding task force pulling all-nighters to create a presence and the low key showing might be because they're not pushing anything until that's in place," said Leon.

As a spectator however, such speculation does little to relieve the disappointment. Few gadgets have had the Gizmodo team as pumped as the Oculus Rift has over the past few years -- to try it is to love it. It may be the future, but that future can't come fast enough, and the Oculus team had better realise that.