Jack McCauley, co-founder of Oculus VR, doesn’t think virtual reality is the future of gaming. McCauley left Oculus after the company was acquired by Facebook in 2014.
Oculus led the charge for consumer-ready VR when it launched on Kickstarter in 2012. The company’s sale to Facebook was controversial among its early backers, but gave the project access to a significantly deeper pool of resources, both financially and in terms of developers and marketing muscle. The company worked with Samsung on their VR product, and released the Oculus Rift, which requires a connection to a PC, in 2016. They followed this up with two standalone devices, 2018’s Oculus Go and 2019's Oculus Quest.
McCauley doesn't see a pathway to success for standalone VR. “If we were gonna sell, we would’ve sold,” he told CNBC in a recent interview. Sales trends seem to agree. The Oculus Quest has sold roughly 1.1 million units since its release in May, and consumers took home roughly 2 million Oculus Go headsets in its first year on the market. By comparison, in 2018 Sony sold 17.8 million units of the Playstation 4, a console which first launched in 2013. McCauley sees major obstacles to mainstream VR adoption:
Video games have not evolved into a 3-D experience for a number of reasons. I don’t know what kind of application it would be for VR that would keep players plugged in for six hours like they do with game consoles... You put it on, and there’s a lot of ‘Wow!’ to it, but then what do you do with it? Even when I was there I thought people weren’t going to wear a headset and walk around with it in public.
Part of the challenge Oculus faces might be due to its lack of enticing exclusive content. Some of the most well-received VR gaming titles are ports of existing games like Superhot or Playstation VR exclusives Resident Evil 7 and Skyrim. Games that are initially designed with VR in mind, like Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, often release traditional versions as well to access the broader gaming market. It’s been rumored that Facebook has lined up Oculus exclusive versions of Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell in an effort to onboard fans of these franchises. Another challenge is an uncanny valley aspect to playing a shooter or platformer in VR. For example, cameras in first-person games will follow the motion of the player’s head, but true 360 degree movement generally also uses controllers, which can be unintuitive and jarring. The biggest issue, though, might be the reputation VR has for causing dizziness and nausea in some players.
The VR industry as a whole is still young, but the reported Oculus sales numbers seem to support McCauley’s pessimistic view. The best modern sales comparison might be the Wii U, which moved just under 4 million units in its first year. That said, Facebook isn't solely a gaming company, and they can afford to support Oculus development even if it isn't an overnight success. There are no signs that Facebook's leadership has lost faith in the long-term potential of the Oculus line. This stability gives the Oculus team room to iterate and improve, making them the most likely company to give consumers a truly successful standalone VR device sometime down the line.