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Oculus to launch long-awaited Rift virtual reality headset in 2016

The virtual reality pioneer, now a part of Facebook, says it plans to ship its flagship device next year.

Oculus plans to launch its flagship Rift headset early next year. Nick Statt/CNET

Oculus VR's long road to store shelves is going to be a little longer than some had hoped.

The virtual reality company, which Facebook bought for $2 billion last year, announced Wednesday that it plans to launch its headset device in the first quarter of next year.

Oculus has high hopes for virtual reality, saying in its announcement that the technology would "transform gaming, film, entertainment, communication and much more."

The launch is a seminal moment for the video game industry, and for the high-flying startup. Until now, most virtual reality technology has come in the form of prototypes and development devices shown at trade shows and high-profile announcements.

Oculus itself was the brainchild of a virtual reality enthusiast, Palmer Luckey, who co-founded the company in 2012 after a mix of money and encouragement from industry veterans. Before then, virtual reality had been the stuff of Hollywood movies since the early 1990s, with films like "The Lawnmower Man."

Oculus held a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter that generated more than $2.4 million in pre-orders for its prototype. But the industry truly began to take off last March, when Sony announced intentions to launch its own virtual reality headset for its PlayStation 4 video game console, called Project Morpheus. That same month, Facebook said it agreed to buy Oculus for $2 billion.

Since then, numerous companies have jumped in as well, offering their own takes on the nascent but high profile industry. Industry giants Samsung, Microsoft and Google have all shown headset devices.

Choosing to launch next year does carry risks for Oculus. The company's device will be arriving in the market months after a competing product from smartphone maker HTC, who partnered with veteran game developer Valve to create a virtual reality headset. The companies said their device, called the Vive, will launch in time for this year's holiday shopping season. Sony, like Oculus, plans to launch its Morpheus device next year.

Analysts say they aren't worried which company launches first. Part of the reason is that the resources and investment necessary to attract game developers to make specialized content, as well as the cost of research into next generation technology, leave a lot of opportunity for deep-pocketed companies to duke it out for a while.

Though Oculus won't be launching its device this year, a version created for Samsung smartphones, called the Gear VR , will be launching before the end of the year. That, along with exclusive games just made for Oculus devices, and entertainment options like movies created by the company's own "Story Studio" team, will likely help keep the company in the spotlight despite the Vive's launch.

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