Why is Oculus making four different VR headsets?

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Earlier this week, Oculus doubled its VR hardware lineup, adding two new headsets alongside the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR. The first is a development kit codenamed Santa Cruz, which features full motion tracking in a wireless headset. The second is Oculus Go, a mobile headset with built-in electronics instead of a phone slot. Facebook’s VR chief Hugo Barra says Go and Santa Cruz are supposed to complement the Rift and Gear VR, not replace them. At a time when virtual reality is a niche pursuit, this is an interesting strategy to expand the market — but also carries the risk of splitting it up.

The existing VR user base is so small that even a game released on several different headsets might not be profitable. Developers broadly tailor their work to either high-end hardware (like the Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR) that lets you walk around and use virtual hands, or low-end products (like Gear VR and Google Daydream) that use point-and-click controls in a stationary position.

Barra says that Santa Cruz adds a third category. It categorically feels like an Oculus Rift, because it’s got positional tracking and motion controllers. But its power, as far as we know, is more on the level of a Gear VR. Though Oculus hasn’t revealed how much Santa Cruz could cost, Barra still refers to the Rift as Oculus’ flagship product. Santa Cruz is supposed to be more accessible, and ultimately, point the way toward mainstream VR.

Right now, Santa Cruz doesn’t fit anywhere. Gear VR games are built for simpler hardware, so Santa Cruz’s extra features would have limited benefit. 360-degree videos, which are some of the most popular Gear VR content, wouldn’t be improved at all. It makes more sense for Oculus to draw from the Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR ecosystems, where motion tracking and hand controls are already standard. But Oculus has given mixed signals on whether Santa Cruz can handle these high-end titles.

Barra told The Verge that developers could get “very similar experiences to what they get on Rift” with Santa Cruz, and as I mentioned in a previous piece, some Rift developers seemed confident they could build for it. But in a keynote at the Oculus Connect developer conference, Oculus CTO John Carmack seemed more dubious. “It’s possible to take the magical essence of anything anyone is doing on the Rift and PC and bring it to a mobile form factor, but it’s not going to be easy,” he said of Santa Cruz. In fact, he suggested that developers start by “sprucing up some Gear VR-level things,” not bringing Rift games over.

If Rift games aren’t majorly compromised on Santa Cruz’s hardware, like Barra suggests, developers might simply aim future games at slightly lower specs — a strategy that would also work well for Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Mixed Reality lineup, which is designed for lower-end PCs. Rift or HTC Vive owners could get more sparkling graphics or faster performance, and a few super-high-end apps might only work for them.

Fewer consumers might buy a Rift under these circumstances, but it would still hold appeal for companies — and in fact, Oculus announced an “Oculus Rift for Business” bundle at Connect. Some of these Rifts would end up running heavy-duty simulators or design tools, while others could make their way into location-based entertainment like arcades, running games people wouldn’t expect to play at home. “We get a lot of requests for stuff like that,” Barra says of arcade-style VR. “I’m a big fan, and we are definitely talking to a lot of folks.”

But what if Carmack is right, and Rift experiences don’t translate well? Oculus could still create a Santa Cruz-specific catalog, simply because it publishes so many big VR titles. But other publishers might not want to build for this new, tiny platform, if it meant producing material that would feel unimpressive on high-end headsets. Meanwhile, Oculus may stop trying to bring the Rift to more people, because it’s designed to push the upper boundaries of VR. Oculus still wants a wide range of Rift-ready computers, Barra says, but it’s “not focused right now on dramatically increasing the addressable base,” he told us. “We want to keep the content quality focused on that high-end graphics card.”

I had an excellent experience with the Santa Cruz prototype, and I’ve got high hopes for the platform. But I haven’t seen the upper limits of its capabilities, just a carefully chosen showcase of demos. Until we know that, there’s some obvious risk that’s hard to evaluate.

While Santa Cruz might make building for VR more complicated, though, Oculus Go seems poised to help the whole mobile ecosystem. It’s not a replacement for the Gear VR, and Carmack predicted that five years from now, phone-based VR would still have more users than all-in-one headsets. Go is supposed to run Gear VR games almost seamlessly, and Carmack encouraged developers to avoid building Go-only games. “You should still be considering Gear VR the primarily platform in mobile,” he said.

Carmack admitted that Samsung, with its phone empire, can promote the Gear VR far better than Oculus can advertise a self-branded headset. Go seems built to pick up users who don’t have Galaxy or Note phones — including, crucially, iPhone users. The Go’s $199 price does make the Gear VR’s $129 plastic shell look a little expensive, but Barra noted that the latter is often sold at a discount or bundled for free with preorders. For Samsung owners, it remains the most obvious choice.

All this is speculation based on what Oculus has said about its new devices, not how they actually work. We won’t know that until next year, at which point the world of VR could look very different. But whatever Oculus releases will play a crucial role in shaping that world — and its plans have just gotten a lot more complicated.

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