Sorry to keep banging the pessimistic drum on virtual reality, but Oculus Rift's launch this year is shaping up to be challenging at best.
The latest, most concerning development is the delay of the Oculus Touch, the innovative hand and finger tracking controllers designed specifically for virtual reality experiences. Earlier this week, Oculus announced that the controllers will launch in the second half of 2016, months after the launch of the Oculus Rift. The Rift itself doesn't have an exact release date yet either, only the first quarter 2016.
"The feedback on Touch has been incredibly positive, and we know this new timeline will produce an even better product, one that will set the bar for VR input," Oculus said. "We appreciate your patience and promise Touch will be worth the wait."
Here's the problem: If Oculus Touch isn't included with every headset, it's an optional gaming peripheral, and those historically don't do very well. Oculus Touch was always going to be an optional peripheral that would launch after the Rift, but used to have the vague launch window of the first half of 2016. The delay only makes certain we won't see the two devices bundled together until the second half of 2016, at the earliest.
The most recent and tragic example of optional peripherals is the Kinect camera for the Xbox One. With a new console to launch, Microsoft had the opportunity to put the Kinect in the home of every Xbox One owner. Unlike the Kinect camera for the Xbox 360, which came long after launch of the Xbox 360, putting a Kinect in the same box as the Xbox One meant that developers could count on players to at least have the option to use it. It doesn't guarantee any game for Kinect will be a success, but at least there's a large audience to sell it to.
Unfortunately, Microsoft bungled the launch of the Xbox One in many ways. One of the ways it walked back its initial, ambitious plans is to make the Kinect optional, which made the Xbox One $100 cheaper (and more competitive with the PlayStation 4). You can still technically use Kinect, but making it optional was basically the beginning of the end for the innovative camera because developers could no longer rely on it having an audience. There aren't any big Kinect games in the works. Even Microsoft is stepping away from it at this point.
In many ways, the Oculus Rift resembles the launch of a new console. Oculus has yet to announce a price, but CEO Palmer Luckey has said that it will cost around $350, around the same as an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Much like a console release, it also has a lineup of launch games designed to show off and sell the device, namely the spaceship game Eve: Valkyrie and the 3D platformer Lucky's Tale. Launch games, by the way, have a reputation for being novel but ultimately not that great, and that's just what those two look like to me based on the little time I got to spend with them at Oculus events.
Even just a few months away from launch, one of the main questions about Oculus Rift and virtual reality games in general is what's the best way to control them. Finding keys and moving a mouse you can't see (because there's an Oculus Rift on your head) seems like a bad idea. A wireless Xbox One controller, which will come with every Oculus Rift, is better, but it's an old way to interact with a new kind of game. Oculus Touch was supposed to solve this problem. What better way to interact in a game that immerses you in virtual worlds like never before than to reach out and touch it? Forget buttons in the traditional sense. The Oculus Touch will let you pick up an object in the game as you would in real life and throw it. If you saw another player in virtual reality, you could wave to them. Valve and HTC came to the same conclusion with wand controllers for the Vive virtual reality headset.
It's an ambitious and promising solution to a difficult problem, but not one developers can trust. Every developer who's working on games for Oculus Rift knows, for sure, that every Oculus Rift owner will have access to a wireless Xbox One controller, so that's the only input method developers can responsibly invest time and money creating games for.
It would be quite a feat for Oculus to make the Touch controllers so popular months after launch that they become essential for virtual reality gaming. What they will cost when they come out, is currently the most important question. But even if Oculus manages to sell Oculus Touch to most Rift players, the delay pushes Oculus Touch games months down the line, and with them the dream of true virtual reality experiences.
Correction: This article has been edited to clarify that Oculus Touch was never going to be included with Oculus Rift at launch.