When anyone building hardware for VR is asked about its competition, you know the answer that's coming: more VR is good for everyone. There's a lot of truth in that, especially with virtual reality still on the "ground floor", but competition is inevitably starting to stir. Oculus and HTC/Valve might say otherwise, but when you're offering two extremely expensive systems that most people can barely afford to buy one of, you're in competition. There's no way around it.
And indeed we can already see different paths being forged. Two big VR events took place last week, Oculus Connect and the Steam Dev Days, and my takeaways from both were quite different.
Valve wants virtual reality to thrive by opening it up as far as it will go; Oculus wants to own content and a slightly more closed ecosystem - and it's throwing $250 million at developers to make it happen, with some exclusive titles already announced (some timed, some not). Right now, I think it's hard to say which will be more helpful in pushing the medium forward.
The new HTC Vive controllers grabbed headlines at the Steam Dev Days, but I think Valve's words carried more weight about where this is all going. Not only is it continuing to push its OpenVR development kit, which works across both Vive and Oculus, it's ensuring distribution can happen beyond the Steam platform. Second, it's licensing its Lighthouse positional tracking technology to anyone, stating it wants this tech to be as ubiquitous as WiFi. In sum, its present philosophy is: open VR will make for good VR.
Oculus's approach is a little different. While I don't think it's fair to call it a "walled garden", it's more restricting than Vive, and wants a tougher grasp on the hardware. It's also poised to lock things down further in the future should it want to, which could even include a return of the DRM it U-turned on earlier this year.
Oculus is trying to get the edge with a tighter grasp on content, and I think that's a fair strategy. I've seen parallels drawn between Oculus and Apple, but what a lot of those people fail to note is that Apple has proudly flourished in its walled garden for many years, while helping push multiple technologies into the mainstream.
Don't get me wrong, I understand why some people see exclusives as harmful for this burgeoning medium, but these are also businesses that need to make money if they're going to keep pushing forward. If Oculus can foster bigger, better games by pumping money into them, it may be worth a little more fragmentation in the long run.
It's worth pointing out that a bit more control usually means better quality control too, which I think is also important in these early days where all the parts and requirements for PC VR can seem very messy. It's the same reason PS VR, which is completely tied to Sony's PlayStation ecosystem, is going to be so important for virtual reality.
Valve is building a strong brand - and a lot of better PR than Oculus in recent months - and opening up its systems for developers to do interesting things, but the Vive may risk losing out on the first "killer apps" if Oculus leverages exclusivity to get them first. On the other hand, as one developer comments when discussing this topic, "users tend to flock to the best hardware", and right now the general consensus seems to be that Vive holds the crown - and shows no sign of slowing down.