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Consumer-Ready Oculus Rift Headset Paves the Way for Virtual Reality

A Gartner analyst says the long-term success of the device depends on developers creating a larger ecosystem of games and other content that consumers want.

(TNS) -- Oculus will release its first consumer-ready Rift virtual reality headset — aimed primarily at video game players — early next year, the Facebook-owned company said Thursday.

The long-awaited annoucement did not include a price for the device, but Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe showed off a fabric-covered headset that was lighter and sleeker than the clunkier prototypes released during the past three years of development.

“This enables the future of virtual reality,” Iribe said at a press briefing in San Francisco, a prelude to next week’s big Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game industry conference in Los Angeles.

The release of a headset that people can buy is an important milestone and “sets the tone” for virtual reality, but it is just “the end of Chapter One of the Oculus story,” said analyst Brian Blau of Gartner Research.

The long-term success of the device depends on developers creating a larger ecosystem of games and other content that consumers want, he said.

“The biggest question of all is how well are game developers and others going to be able to take advantage of immersive technology,” Blau said.

Although one slide in Iribe’s presentation indicated that the Rift would be out in January, the company said it would go on sale during the first quarter.

The Rift will include a wireless Xbox One game controller and adapter, and Oculus worked with Microsoft to make the Rift work with the upcoming Windows 10 operating system.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey also revealed that the company is working on hand controllers, called Oculus Touch, to mimic touching objects in a virtual reality world. They include finger and thumb controls, and are worn on each hand.

“You’re going to feel like your hands are there,” Luckey said. “You can pick up a gun from a table and then fire it or drop it effortlessly.”

The hand controllers, which were code-named Half Moon, will be sold seperately.

Luckey bounded onto the stage with the enthusiasm of a kid with a new toy Thursday. He gave Iribe a high-five as he took over the presentation.

“This isn’t science fiction, this is reality, and it’s happening today,” Luckey said.

Iribe has previously said the entire Oculus kit would set gamers back about $1,500, but that includes the price of a PC needed to run the device.

Oculus VR sparked a frenzy of interest in virtual reality technology after a high-profile Kickstarter campaign in 2012 raised $1 million in just 36 hours. In March 2014, Facebook agreed to buy the Irvine company in a deal valued at $2 billion.

But so far, Oculus has delivered only several versions of $350 Oculus Rift prototypes meant for software developers to create video games and other applications.

The company does have a partnership with Samsung, which has begun selling the Gear VR, virtual reality headgear that runs on Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smart phone.

At the press conference, Oculus showed two-dimensional previews of several games being created for virtual reality, including “Eve Valkyrie” and “Edge of Nowhere.”

Jason Rubin, head of Oculus Studios, also said “Sports Challenge” will include virtual reality versions of baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Oculus also said it is investing $10 million to stimulate development of virtual reality games from independent game makers.

The redesigned Rift comes with a face mask that can be easily removed and replaced. And it feels significantly lighter than the prototypes.

The device is “so light you can hold it in one hand,” Iribe said. “You’re going to put it on like a baseball cap.”

Oculus VR might have reinvigorated interest in virtual reality research that started decades ago, but the company now has no shortage of major competitors developing virtual or augmented reality devices.

Those include Sony’s Project Morpheus, the HTC Vive, the Razer OSVR, the Microsoft HoloLens and the Avegant Glyph.

Meanwhile, Google has countered with a device costing only several hundred dollars, Cardboard, a do-it-yourself virtual reality viewer made primarily out of cardboard. The device needs a smartphone to run the virtual reality apps.

“They all want to help create this market and make something of it,” Blau said. “The way that Oculus is going about doing it is just one way.”

Still, the Oculus Rift is the device tech fans have been waiting to see. Although Rift’s team is focused on video games, third-party developers have already used early Rift prototypes to demonstrate the potential of virtual reality.

Although most development has been in video games, Oculus Rift prototypes have also been used for virtual tours of college campuses, homes and vacation spots.

One company, Jaunt, created a virtual reality version of Paul McCartney performing “Live and Let Die” in the last event at Candlestick Park. The porn industry is also dabbling in Rift technology.

“We’ve seen Oculus open up some original content,” Blau said.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.