Facebook’s Virtual Reality Meets Hard Reality

By Anonymous
Facebook’s Virtual Reality Meets Hard Reality

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg introduced the Oculus Connect 5 at a launch event in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

When it comes to bringing virtual reality to the masses, Facebook FB 1.24% has made the job both easier and much more difficult.

The job is easier because Facebook remains a company of vast financial resources that currently serves about one-quarter of the world’s population. As such, there is no company better positioned to make virtual reality into a true mass-market technology. Facebook, through the Oculus brand it acquired four years ago for $2 billion, already has two VR headsets on the market and announced a third on Wednesday at its Oculus Connect developers’ conference.

That device, called the Oculus Quest, is designed to deliver high-end VR content without the need to be tethered to a computer or game console. It goes on sale early next year at a starting price of $399—the same current price of the company’s current high-end set called the Oculus Rift, which requires a tether. The new headset should at least help Facebook expand its share of the nascent VR gaming market, where it has trailed Sony ’s PlayStation VR by a wide margin. The Rift sold about 400,000 units last year against 1.6 million VR headsets sold by Sony, according to estimates from IDC.

But the difficult part is that this is still Facebook. The social network’s reputation has taken a big hit this year over controversies involving everything from misinformation to election hacking to user privacy. Those controversies have finally started to weigh on the company’s booming user growth, as well as its market value. And while the company is currently focused on games through its Oculus label, Facebook’s ultimate aim to make VR a mass-market force on its own platform. CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself introduced the new Quest headset on stage Wednesday, while also reminding the audience of his oft-stated goal of eventually bringing 1 billion people into VR.

The Oculus Quest and the lower-end Go headset are important steps on that path. The Go, which sells for $199, already has sold nearly 290,000 units since its launch in May, estimates market-research firm SuperData. But Facebook’s ultimate success in VR may hinge on the question of whether consumers will really want to strap themselves into a virtual world run by a tarnished advertising giant. It’s a question that can no longer be taken for granted.