Facebook's Oculus virtual-reality division: Let's not go crazy with the hype

The world's largest social network has pledged big-time support for this nascent technology but warns that VR may have small-time sales in the beginning.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, is preaching calm in addition to enthusiasm. Nate Ralph/CNET

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- It's finally happening: After decades of development, virtual reality will be landing on store shelves this November.

The excitement is palpable. Rock stars of the video game industry are singing the technology's praises. The world's most powerful technology companies have announced plans to offer competing products. Facebook spent $2 billion to buy one of the industry's largest companies last year. And analysts are estimating significant growth, with up to 30 million headsets shipped annually around the globe by 2020.

There's reason for the interest. The VR industry is at the beginning of what could be the next major technology trend, with the potential to change the way people live, work and communicate. That potential has attracted billions of dollars in capital, which is being funneled into startups creating video games, educational apps, communications services and business programs.

The promise of being able to put a pair of computer-connected goggles on your head and suddenly feel like you've been transported to another world is compelling.

That's probably why Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, stood on stage earlier this week at the Oculus Connect conference here to deliver a message: Manage your expectations.

"This is going to grow slowly," he warned. "If you think about the arrival of computers or smartphones, the first units shipped did not ship tens of millions in their first year. But they proved an idea and made it real."

Other Oculus executives said similar things, telling attendees who are creating video games, movies and experiences for this nascent technology that there's still a long way to go. Michael Abrash, a celebrated game maker and chief scientist at Oculus, said decades of innovation are still to come and a lot of research is still needed to improve the technology. "We've barely started down the path of what VR is capable of."

The first VR product, Samsung's Gear VR headset that works with flagship smartphones like the Note 5 and Galaxy S6, will be on sale in less than two months, for $99 apiece. Soon, consumers will be able to go to a local shop and experience VR apps and games for the price of a high-end smartphone case.

But a rising concern is that the hype following this technology could push expectations too high, ultimately disappointing investors and analysts who fund these startups and shape public opinion. If a slow start is seen as a flop, executives fear it could have wide-ranging impacts on the industry.

"You have to get past the hype," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. A VR pioneer himself more than a decade ago, Blau has begun telling companies that they need to treat the industry like a business and have reasoned expectations for how quickly it will grow. "Focus on the reality." he said.

That doesn't mean executives aren't still excited. In his speech Thursday, Zuckerberg repeated earlier statements that VR could be like the next smartphone, a platform upon which developers created apps and services that have changed commerce, communication and media. "In just a few years, VR has gone from a science fiction dream to an awesome reality," he said. "All of you are inventing the next major platform."

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