One of the most difficult aspects of VR is how hard it is to actually convey the experience of using the device. It’s not the first time we’ve had this problem — both 3-D and multi-monitor configurations don’t translate well to still photos or even most video — but VR takes the problem and turns it up to 11. It is therefore good news that Oculus will be teaming up with Best Buy and offering VR headsets consumers can walk in and test-drive before plunking down $600 in cash.
What’s not good news is the way Oculus has shafted its pre-order customers in order to get hardware into retail channels. Oculus has announced that beginning May 7, Best Buy will begin selling the Oculus Rift at retail, while the Microsoft Store, Amazon, and Best Buy online are already offering customers the chance to buy Rift bundles, which ship immediately. Customers have even been allowed to order a Rift + PC bundle, then cancel the PC portion of the order and buy just the Rift.
Pre-order customers who plunked down a reservation for the device are understandably furious. Oculus has struggled to ship hardware due to an unspecified “component shortage.” The company announced last month that its preorder fulfillment schedule had slipped by a month or more. Worse, if you currently order a Rift, you won’t receive it until August. Reports on /r/Oculus also point to an unusual red tint issue showing up in some headsets. It’s not clear yet how widespread the problem is, but Oculus has apparently distributed a reporting tool to some customers so it can gather information on the problem.
Oculus’ response to this problem has been to offer its customers a bone of sorts. If you show up to your local Best Buy and manage to score a retail Rift, they’ll cancel your pre-order, but still give you all of the benefits of having placed it, including a free copy of Eve: Valkyrie and priority placement for Oculus Touch orders when the company eventually ships its motion controllers. Keep in mind, however, that benefit depends on you showing up to a participating Best Buy (with just 48 participating BBs across the US, they aren’t exactly on every street corner) and on being able to secure a place in line to actually a device. A pre-order is supposed to guarantee that you don’t have to wait in line for hours for a chance at buying something.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece called “Why you shouldn’t pre-order an Oculus Rift.” One of the primary reasons to hold back on buying a Rift was because we had no idea how the launch and rollout would be handled. Many readers disputed this claim, arguing that the previous headset launches had worked out kinks and gone fairly well. Oculus, I was told, had already solved these problems. Launch would be brilliant, hardware would ship quickly, and my bias against Oculus would be exposed to my everlasting shame.
Oculus hasn’t done anything that would make their launch an outright failure, but the company’s communication strategy and prioritization decisions like this one have blown off its own foot. Forcing pre-order customers to wait additional months or stand in line at a retail store is exactly the opposite of what anybody wanted. Hardware issues like red tint could be a sign that at least some headsets are suffering a quality control issue. The push into retail would be understandable if Oculus was still a tiny start-up trying to get some cash flow, but Oculus is owned by Facebook and barely a blip on its financial records.
There is, in short, absolutely no objective reason why Oculus is required to prioritize retail rollouts over previous order fulfillment. Maybe that order came down from the bean counters on high, or maybe it’s something Palmer Luckey dreamed up on his own. But it’s a slap in the face to the people who believed in and supported his product the most.