The Oculus Quest — which is the virtual reality headset I recommend to just about everyone who’d like to buy a VR headset — has been the best useful piece of technology I’ve had around the house during the past few week of lockdown. It’s the one piece of technology that I’d love to recommend to just about every household struggling while looking for something to do or even someplace to go. There’s a somewhat large problem with doing so, however.
They’re nearly impossible to buy, without paying a huge markup.
Technology is only useful if you can access it
“Like other companies we’re experiencing some impact to our hardware production due to COVID-19,” a Facebook spokesperson told Polygon. “We’re taking precautions to ensure the safety of our employees, manufacturing partners and customers, and are monitoring the situation closely. We are working to restore availability as soon as we can.”
The Quest retails for either $399.99 or $499.99, depending on whether you get the model that includes 64 GB of storage of 128 GB, but the lack of availability has driven up the price on the gray market; the cheapest I was able to find the 64 GB unit on Amazon was $632.39, as of the time of writing.
If you’re able to find one for the standard retail price, for the love of all that is holy, grab it if you can afford it. It looks increasingly like we’re going to be in social isolation for a pretty long time, and your desire for the things the Quest is able to offer will only grow.
The lack of hardware on store shelves is a frustrating problem, especially during a situation in which VR has the chance to do some actual good for people.
Virtual reality, as a technology, is uniquely suited to help with so many challenges people are experiencing while staying inside. Are you bored with your surroundings? Go anywhere else in the world with the Wander app. Feeling claustrophobic due to the small size of your room or apartment? Trick your brain into thinking you’re in the middle of a brand-new, wide-open space. Feeling socially isolated because you can’t be around people you don’t live with?
There are plenty of social experiences that make it easy to connect with people to watch movie or play games together. There are VR coloring books that let you get lost in your creation as you’re coloring it, and exercise apps that help you keep fit, with an upcoming service that looks like it’s aiming at a Peloton-style experience.
The Quest doesn’t need a fast computer, since it’s a portable, self-contained VR system, although you can use a USB-C cable to connect it to any gaming PC if you’d like to try more graphically intense games, including Half-Life: Alyx.
Hardware is being sold at the standard retail price from time-to-time as shipments come in, but those supplies are gobbled up by scalpers and curious fans with little more to do than continually check in on supply through the normal channels. Finding, and buying, the hardware at its actual price is just about impossible for most folks right now.
Our current situation, in which we’re suffering from boredom and stress in equal doses, is the sort of climate in which VR can and should flourish, but the disruption in the supply chain means that Facebook likely won’t be able to catch up with demand for some time. Finding VR hardware was proving difficult even before the pandemic, in fact.
Recent events have only made things worse, and it’s not just impacting Facebook. The hardware that would help make our time at home at least a little more tolerable is almost always sold out across the board, as are things like jigsaw puzzles and board games. The New York Times has reported on how our spending habits have changed during lockdown, with most sectors losing sales, but gaming and streaming services surging in popularity. Video games, and hardware like the Oculus Quest, are obvious band-aids to put over the mental wounds of loneliness and isolation.
But while companies like Nintendo will rally and do fine regardless of shortages right now, virtual reality has had a rockier path to mainstream acceptance and profitability for developers. This is a golden opportunity to show people what VR can do, in a way that helps them get through what is likely to be a moment that defines the generation that lived through it.
The Quest, and other VR headsets, have the potential to help us relieve our boredom, keep our bodies in shape, and keep us connected to those we care about when doing those things physically invites huge risks to our health.
The question of why we need VR has been given an answer, even if that answer is so devastating in so many other ways. When we can’t leave the house in order to keep the population safe, a relatively affordable technology that is able to seemingly transport us to someplace novel, someplace fun and distracting, while making sure we continue to move and stay in some kind of shape? A way to meet up with others that feels more “real” than a video call? It seems like the perfect solution to so many of our challenges … if you could buy one.
There’s no easy solution that will get more hardware on store shelves, and prices will likely continue to rise as quarantine continues and people become more desperate for a novel form of entertainment that does more than give them something else to watch on their TV or computer.
Virtual reality’s time is now, but without the necessary supply? The moment may pass without Facebook, or other VR companies, able to take advantage of the surging demand.