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VR sales on the upswing, thanks to Facebook's Oculus Quest

Virtual reality may be starting to grab people's attention.

Man in VR headset as traffic streams by.
Over the past couple of years, consumers have been passing VR by.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Virtual reality's promise has always been at least a little enticing: Strap on a headset that puts a screen so close to your eyes it tricks your brain into thinking you're piloting a spaceship on the other side of the galaxy, or deep-sea diving with a blue whale, or taking lightsaber lessons from Darth Vader. But sales since the latest batch of VR headsets came out in 2016 have seemed to disappoint.

Now Facebook's Oculus Quest may be helping the industry turn a corner. The social networking giant pitched the $399 headset, which went on sale in May, as offering the best VR experience to date. Unlike other higher-end headsets, the Quest didn't need to be plugged in to a computer to operate. Instead, all the computing guts were built in to the gadget itself. That reduced the overall cost of the device, removing a computer that could start at roughly $500.

Industry tracker Nielsen's SuperData Research says the Quest's sales are helping bolster the VR industry's overall hardware spending by 31% this year, jumping to $2.1 billion from $1.6 billion last year. SuperData said that aside from consumers buying Quest headsets, companies are generally spending more on VR too.

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The sales data is the latest sign that VR is beginning to win people over, even if a bit slowly. In 2014, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company had bought the pioneering VR startup Oculus for more than $2 billion, he talked about how the technology wasn't just for gaming but would remake education, medicine, communications and the tech industry itself. Fast-forward to the technology's launch, with competitors including HTC, Valve, Google, Microsoft and Sony entering the fray, and people didn't appear ready to buy devices in droves yet.

This year, Facebook has focused much of its effort on the Quest, with ads pitching the headset as otherworldly entertainment, helped by the company's recently acquired Beat Saber rhythm game. Facebook even offered discounts during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoffs to the holiday shopping season.

Whether that'll be enough to help VR transition from plaything to mass market device remains to be seen. But at least according to SuperData, the Quest is starting to stand out.