Facebook’s plan to get you to buy into VR: A price deal – CNET

Facebook is getting aggressive with VR prices in an effort to get 1 billion people to try them.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg wants to turn you — and another 999,999,999 people — into VR believers.

As part of Facebook‘s latest quest to make virtual reality an everyday part of our lives, the company’s CEO is bringing out the biggest weapon he can think of to win over customers: deals he thinks you can’t refuse.

The world’s biggest social network, which jumped into VR when Zuckerberg bought startup Oculus for more than $2 billion in 2014, dropped the price of its Rift headsets by $100 to $399 at its VR developer conference on Wednesday. He also announced the Oculus Go, a $199 mobile VR headset that loses the wires, attached computer and sensors you need to power the Rift. The Oculus Go is due sometime next year.

Facebook believes both the Oculus Go and the cheaper price for the Rift will make clear that it’s the go-to company for people considering buying into VR tech.

That’s key since app developers and analysts think VR headsets still cost too much to attract a mass market audience. And so far, people seem to agree. Oculus sales were slow in its first year on the market, falling shy of 250,000 units, people familiar with the matter said. But after Oculus dropped the price — twice — demand began to swell.

Zuckerberg didn’t offer up any sales data on the Rift, but he did wax poetic about how the still-nascent technology will change how we live and work, from the way we interact with one another to the way we play games and watch movies.  

“We believe that the future can be a lot better,” Zuckerberg said in a 15-minute presentation the first day of the Oculus Connect developer conference in San Jose, California. “It’s not about escaping reality, it’s about making it better.”

After putting on a VR headset, which straps a screen so close to your face, you’re tricked into thinking you’re actually in the computer-generated world. People will be able to do everything from feel like they’re traveling in space to looking at a model of their heart before an upcoming surgery, Zuckerberg said. “We’re legitimately excited about the future and we’re committed to making it a reality,” he said. 

So are some of his rivals. In the past three years since Facebook bought Oculus, Sony began selling its PlayStation VR for $400, HTC offered up the Vive for $599, and Google introduced its Daydream View for $99. Meanwhile, Microsoft is partnering with device makers like Lenovo, Dell, HP, Acer and Samsung to create headsets that work with its popular Windows software  for as little as $300 apiece.

“We want to bring people from ‘it’s crazy to own a VR device,’ to ‘it’s crazy not to,'” Nate Mitchell, an Oculus cofounder and the company’s VP of product, said in an interview. “I think demand is there at the right price and with the right content.”

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Facebook believes VR will upend the way we use computers.

James Martin/CNET

Ambitious goal

Facebook has a massive network, with more than 2 billion people using it at least once a month. But while Zuckerberg wants 1 billion VR users, he didn’t say exactly when he expects to reach his goal of upending the way we use computers.

“It’s a challenge,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at research firm Gartner.  

But, how long might it actually take?

Maybe five to 10 years, said Blau. His current forecasts for VR headsets are mapped out to 2021, and 1 billion users isn’t “on the forecast. Period.”   

And a big reason that consumers aren’t buying into VR? Price. Even a $400 Rift still needs a $500 PC to power it. The Oculus Go, at $200, may be closer to the price people are used to paying for subsidized phones.

There’s also the issue of what do you do with all that VR gear once you get it. There isn’t a killer app or experience that draws people to these devices, in the same way playing tennis and golf on Wii Sports helped Nintendo’s Wii video game console become a hit outside the game industry when it was released in 2006. Or the way email, YouTube and web browsing helped draw attention to Apple‘s first iPhone in 2007.

“There are challenges to work through,” Zuckerberg said, acknowledging some of the concerns in his speech. He also said the devices need to be less bulky. “That’s not great, we’re working on it.”

The Rift itself is less than seven inches across and four inches deep, which is a little less than a bread loaf pan. It’s also weighs about a pound, not including the 13-foot-long cord that plugs into a high-end PC to power it.

Even with all the work needed to convince us to buy into VR, Facebook insists the promise is still there. Two years ago, he talked about how he couldn’t wait to watch a replay of his daughter Max’s first steps while he wears a VR headset strapped to his face.

He echoed his optimistic view of VR on Wednesday.

“We have the ability to create a world where fewer of us are limited to only doing jobs that are nearby us,” he said. “Enabling us to be present anywhere creates opportunities for people everywhere.”

With more than $35 billion in cash, Facebook can certainly afford to create those “opportunities” by cutting prices even more.

CNET’s Sean Hollister contributed to this report.

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