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By showcasing Samsung’s Gear VR, Oculus reminds us VR is bigger than the Rift

Oculus Connect 2 is a conference run by Oculus, staffed by Oculus, and featuring keynotes and presentations from the company’s best and brightest. It’d be reasonable to expect the conference to focus on the Rift, Oculus’ baby – but that’s not quite what happened this year.

Instead, the company shone the spotlight on its partner, Samsung. Gear VR, the mobile virtual reality headset that debuted as an “innovator’s edition” last year, grabbed the show’s headline announcement with a new consumer release priced at just $99 that supports multiple Samsung phones.

This unexpected pivot shows that Oculus is serious about pushing VR as a new form of media, rather than just its own product. And it may mean the Rift is further from release than thought.

Welcome the $99 Gear VR

koo samsung gear vr

Oculus

Oculus led with its biggest salvo early on, bringing Samsung VP of Mobile Peter Koo on stage to announce the $99 Gear VR within the first half of three scheduled, hour-long keynotes. The reveal was actually a bit deflating, because it swept away hopes that Oculus might also announce a price and release date for Rift. Gear VR is not nearly as well known outside of the VR community, or as respected inside it.

And that seems to be the point. Gear VR Innovator Edition gathered some attention because of its inexpensive $199 price point and mobile compatibility, but many people quickly dismissed it. I must admit that I was among them, as I could not imagine either Samsung or Oculus pushing it as a serious choice for VR. Its specifications are far below any console or PC-connected headset, making it easy to dismiss as a toy useful only to those who really can’t afford a Rift.

Related: Samsung announces $99 Gear VR at Oculus Connect 2

The message is clear. Oculus believes Gear VR is “real” VR.

Oculus is trying hard to flip that narrative on its head. While the consumer version’s lower price point and broader compatibility were surprising, Oculus did not dwell on them. Instead, the company backed up the hardware debut with a buffet of tasty new features, including Netflix support and Oculus Arcade.

The message is clear. Oculus believes Gear VR is “real” VR, even if its specifications are more limited. This is an especially strong statement because of its source – Oculus does not readily compromise quality, as evidenced by the long development cycle of the Rift and its picky curation of the Oculus store. Gear VR may be affordable, but it’s not meant to be a cheap distraction. Instead it’s meant to be a gateway drug, satisfying those with modest interest in VR while luring those who want more immersive experiences.

And what about the Rift?

Of course, the Rift was not missing in action at Oculus Connect 2. There were many announcements related to it. Oculus Medium, a virtual design interface targeting digital artists, was revealed, alongside a release date for the shipping version of the Oculus SDK (it will arrive in December), Minecraft for the Rift, and the Oculus Ready PC program.

All these tidbits are nice to have, but the company didn’t have much to say about the hardware. There’s still no release date, no launch window more precise than “Q1 2016,” or price, or even exact specifications for the entire finalized design. We don’t know exactly how much it weighs, or how far away the remote sensor needs to be placed from the headset, for example.

Oculus Rift

Brad Bourque/Digital Trends

Related: We went hands-on with the Oculus Rift

Our hands-on time also suggested that progress has not been easy. While there were some new demos, such as the previously mentioned Medium, most of what I saw was either old content or related to mobile. The most impressive new demo was undoubtedly Land’s End, the much-anticipated VR game from the creators of Monument Valley, and it was demoed on Gear VR.

And the Rift itself still feels a bit rough. Oculus has stripped the headset of weight, making it comfortable to wear, but there are flaws. Focus can be wonky, the inter-pupillary distance adjustment mechanism is not yet implemented, a lot of light intrudes from the bottom of the set, and people with glasses can still have issues (so I hear – I wear contacts).

Oculus will be using every spare second to tweak the Rift.

A Q1 2016 release could technically happen as soon as CES 2016 in the first week of January, but that seems premature. It now feels likely we won’t receive a final price and release until CES, at the earliest, with the headset coming to market in early Spring of next year.

And Oculus will be using every spare second to tweak it. While the company has grown quickly, it is still agile at heart, and it won’t commit to a final design until absolutely necessary. We won’t know what the consumer Rift is like until we have the final production unit in-hand.

VR’s growing scope

I was tempted, for a few hours, to be disappointed by the keynotes. Like many, I came to Oculus Connect 2 mostly hyped for Rift, and with little regard for Gear VR. Seeing so much time dedicated to one of the market’s least capable headsets was not encouraging.

Related: Oculus Head of Mobile says “we still have a lot to learn.”

Then I tried some demos. While it remains true that Gear VR is less detailed, less graphically powerful, and less accurate in its head tracking than Rift, it can be engaging. Land’s End was convincing, far more so than Gunjack, an action game based in the Eve Online universe. Social viewing of movies on mobile viewing also seemed convincing, even if the demo itself was plagued by the fact no one was familiar with the controls.

Oculus wants the world to know that is isn’t just the creator of the Rift. Instead, it sees itself as a shepherd for the entire VR ecosystem. Fans of the Rift alone may have come away from Connect 2 a bit underwhelming, but it’s not an exaggeration to say the future of VR itself is in the company’s hands – and that means it must embrace a broader vision that includes everyone. Connect 2 was a stride in that direction.