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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Oculus Rift... or ripoff?


<Begin Transcendental Music>

A week ago, after years and years of development, the Oculus Rift was finally - finally - available for pre-order (limit one per customer,) with shipping expected to happen June 2016 according to the pre-order page. Or is that March 28th as another page on the site claims? Who knows. Three years ago I was brimming with hype for the Rift. I even got to play EVE Valkyrie using the Rift at EVE Vegas 2013. It was truly an incredible experience. And now I can finally order it! All my dreams are finally coming true...

<sound of needle scratching across record>

Actually, no, no they haven't. In fact, I am disappointed. I am not terribly disappointed, but nevertheless I am disappointed. For more than a year the media has been trying to pin down the price for Rift. A figure of $1500 has been widely reported, but that price includes the PC needed to run the device. Those who actually understand these things have been banking on a street price for just the Rift of about $300. Last week we found out the price for the Rift is twice that: $600. 

Many have called that a bitter pill. Lucky Palmer has stated that is little more than the manufacturing cost of a premium VR headset. He has stated it's the price for making cheap VR in the future. Here is exactly what he said on reddit,
The goal never changed, but the timeline of achieving that goal did. I still want to make VR cheap, functional, and disruptive, but it takes a certain amount of quality to do that. Three years ago, I thought a good enough headset could be built for $300 and run on a decent gaming PC. 
Since then, we have learned a lot about what it takes to induce presence, and the landscape of the industry has changed a lot too - we are no longer the only players, and the burden of bringing good VR to everyone is no longer solely on us. The best way to make a technology mainstream is not always as simple as making a cheap product as quickly as possible, that is what lead to the last VR crash! Tesla is a good example - Elon Musk had to convince the public that electric cars could be awesome before he could build the technology that would actually make electric cars mainstream. If Tesla had tried to make a $35k mass-market electric car back in 2008, they would have accomplished little. Instead, they made the Roadster and Model S, proved that electric cars could be awesome, invested heavily in R&D, and now have a clear path towards their ever-present long term goal, making electric cars mainstream. 
Virtual reality is actually in an even better scenario. GearVR is already an awesome headset for $99 if you already have a flagship Samsung phone (like tens of millions of other people), and there are other companies entering the VR scene in the near future. Eventually, VR is going to run on every computer sold, and there will be a wide range of hardware at various price and quality points, a lot like televisions or monitors. 
The Rift is the first headset capable of delivering presence, the sensation of feeling like you are inside a virtual scene on a subconscious level. As I have said before, VR needs to become something everyone wants before it can become something everyone can afford - I totally understand people who don’t want to spend that much on VR, but this is the current cost of making a really good headset. Much like smartphones, the cost of that quality is going to come down over time - you can buy unsubsidized phones for less than $100 that blow away the best $600 phones from just five years ago, that is what time does to the cost of technology.
Let me translate all that for you. "Rift is the Tesla automobile of virtual reality, and we have to charge a premium price for it in order to drum up interest and raise the money need to research how to make cheaper VR in the future and take it mainstream." Or put another way, if you really want this now, oh boy are we going to stick it to you. Otherwise, wait a few years and I'm sure we'll be ready to sell it to you more cheaply. Wow, that doesn't sound like a technology company. That sounds like a social media company that can't figure out how to make a profit. I find it very hard to believe Lucky Palmer actually had the guts to weave that amazing web of bull shit on reddit. Talk about your marketing bullshit with fancy words like "presence" and "magic" interspersed liberally. It's enough to make me gag. Lucky Palmer is no Elon Musk and this doesn't work coming out of his metaphorical mouth. Am I bitter about the $599 price tag? Well, not bitter because I'd buy a Tesla if I could afford one. However, like 99% of the people in the world, I'll have to wait for the $35k Tesla because I'm not that rich. I can't help but feel this boneheaded price on the Rift will accomplish just the opposite of what Mr. Palmer claims they want to accomplish. I know I am really turned off by the price.

But the price isn't the only thing filling people with angst. The PC requirements given by Oculus are as well. It turns out many current gaming systems are failing the Rift Compatibility Tool test. Here are the minimum requirements as given on the Oculus website.


This doesn't look all that bad, right? It's misleading. The issue is the CPU requirement. What is not stated here is that Oculus is looking at only single core processing capability. It doesn't matter if you have n i7-2600k like mine overclocked to beat the band. You'll still get a result like this.


Clicking the "Learn more" link explains the failure with an asterisk note beneath "Why am I getting this error?", and clarifies Oculus is focusing on single core performance.


How can that be bad you wonder? Well, it's not bad per se. First of all, though the requirements listed by Oculus at the very top are touted as "minimum" requirements, the note on this page refers to the requirement as "recommended." So which is it? And have a look at that processor again. The i5-4590 just happens to be (arguably) one of the best single core performing CPUs Intel has ever produced, even if it is nearly two years old. It's performance in many other respects is less than my i7-2600k when overclocked, and certainly less than newer i7-k class CPUs. 


Granted, the i7-2600k isn't the newest CPU on the block, but it is not alone in being unable to pass the Rift Compatibility Tool test. The i7-3820 also fails the test according to this Oculus forum thread, as does the i7-3970x. Your i7 will have to be in the upper 4000 series range before the single core performance begins to top the i5-4590, which makes sense as they are of a generation. Basically there is no difference in single core performance between an i5 and an i7 of the same gen. Upgrading to that generation of processor though would require a motherboard replacement in my PC with a likely memory replacement as well. That's not something I'd undertake lightly just for Rift. If it were a simpler CPU-only upgrade, I'd consider it.

But wait, this isn't the end of the matter. The Rift Compatibility Test doesn't take everything into account. It can't. It's just this dinky tool designed to get people to buy the $999 Alienware (Dell,) HP and Dell computers Oculus was paid to promote on their web site. (Wait, was that my cynical voice?) After all, I can overclock the dickens out of my CPU. I can boost it's single core performance by quite a bit since the entire system, CPU and GPU, are water cooled. Can't I get as much performance out of that premium, though dated, CPU as the newer i5-4590?

Well, the forum thread I linked above recommended people actually test their system. At some time in the past Lucky Palmer stated a 3dMark score of about 9000 or better would be suitable for the Rift. You can download the 3DMark Firestrike 1.1 demo from Steam for free. The system test takes about 5 to 10 minutes and gives you feedback on their website. Here are the results for my system, and you can see the Oculus Rift recommended PC score right below my result.


So it seems perhaps my rig can possibly run the Rift after all. However, the big unknown here is how critical the single core speed is to the Rift's performance. I monitored my system using Arx Control on my phone while I ran the 3DMark test. No single core ever exceeded 60% utilization, but it was obvious the test was taking advantage of all four cores. If Rift for some reason required 3D games to utilize a single core, it would be staggeringly stupid, not to mention a step back into the 1990s. It is not a technological requirement designed to pave the way to the future of VR as Mr. Palmer insists.

After thinking about Rift for a week, and having typed all this out, I still can't decide whether I'm outraged or simply offended. I've got the same feeling in my gut as the victim of bait and switch. I really can't doubt it's been tremendously expensive to develop the Rift. But I look at the offering, and the cost, and the extra cost of potentially having to upgrade a system that already runs anything I throw at it extremely well, and I have to ask, "Are you kidding? Do I look like I was born yesterday?" Then again, part of me still wants to pre-order. And sooner or later I will upgrade my CPU even though that means a motherboard replacement. Couldn't I just do that this spring and get it over with? I just can't get past the feeling I'm being toyed with, no pun intended. Like it was hype-hype-hype just to get us to the point of /r/shutupandtakemymoney.

So what are your thoughts about Rift and the price tag, literal and implied, Oculus has placed on it. Do you think the price is justified? Are you outraged? Do you intend to buy the Rift regardless? Tell me what you're thinking so I can better figure out what I'm thinking. And as always, thank you.

3 comments:

  1. It's $100 more as I would have expected but it's not excessive. Early adapters or tech addicts shell out €600,- for a telephone as well.

    Since I would require a new PC anyway it's likely I will wait 1-2 years until the second/third generation devices are available.

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  2. I don't have any emotional investment in the Oculus Rift. While I understand the pricing point isn't an easy buy for most people, I can appreciate a focus on getting the technology right. If they have, then I would expect the price to drop over the next couple of years.

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  3. A few years ago, I was blown away by the quality of the Rift. If it had been released two years ago for $600, I probably would have bought it. Problem for the Rift is they weren't first to market and there's quite a few competitive products launching in the very near future. So, now I'm waiting to see pricing and more info on things like the HTC Vive before I make a decision on which VR set to get. Rift waited to long.

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