Make no mistake: Virtual Reality is here to stay. It's easy to dismiss it if you lived in the '90s and watched the hype surrounding fledgling VR tech gradually dissolve, but something about modern VR feels more grounded. It's more thoroughly planned out and far more tangible than the '90s' outlandish VR dreams, which were based on wishes and cotton candy.
At any rate, Facebook, Valve, and Sony (amongst other companies) have already invested way too much time and money into VR to let it quietly dry up and blow away. The companies behind the push will probably pull every marketing trick to get us interested, short of stapling their respective VR headsets to our faces.
But while VR is certain to catch on, it won't be everywhere tomorrow. VR headsets are currently too expensive for the Common Joe. Oculus Rift, coming at the end of this month, is $599 USD. HTC Vive, already available for pre-order, is $799 USD.
But there are dirt-cheap options out there, and even if they're not as high-tech and immersive as the Oculus Rift, they're already warming up a generation to the idea of sticking their faces directly in front of their games. And once that generation grows up and can afford an actual headset, they'll surely be plentiful and far cheaper.
Google Cardboard is the most popular VR headset to date, and without a doubt it's the cheapest. For $12.99, you get a fold-it-yourself hunk of cardboard that you slide your smartphone into. Then you put it on your face (there's a strap, thankfully) and get up close and personal with your apps with the aid of two 25mm Biconvex lenses.
If $12.99 is still too rich for your blood, Coke and McDonalds are now offering VR headsets that are literally the cost of a twelve-pack and a Happy Meal. Various boxes bearing the Coke name and its products fold down into headsets and include a pair of lenses for you to slip into the viewing field. Similarly, the Happy Meal box can be folded into an outer viewing shell that you place the internal viewing device and your smartphone into.
Obviously, not every mobile game is well-suited for a disposable VR headset that's powered by a smartphone, since you can't touch the screen. TouchArcade mentions the Happy Meal headset is supposed to be used with a game tailored specifically for the "device," but there isn't a lot of information about it yet. That said, any mobile game with tilt-based controls should still be playable.
Cheap VR isn't just acclimating kids to this upcoming shift in gaming. It's also altering the "Prize Inside!" toy-and-food pairing that's been part of Western culture for decades. VR in any form is a pretty sophisticated prize to serve up alongside some kid's hamburger. It doesn't mean Transformers are about to be evicted from Happy Meals in favor of cardboard tech accessories, but it does demonstrate how kids' playtime is becoming more serious and more wired.
Incidentally, the Happy Meal VR headsets are currently only available in Sweden. The United States will get its turn, presumably once the McDonald's PR team figures out how it's going to couple two things American parents generally rail against -- fast food and sedentary play time -- without sparking an epic backlash.