Virtual reality is no longer new. It's still an emerging technology, but with consumer headsets having been widely available for a couple of years now, its a bandwagon that's already looking pretty overcrowded.
Microsoft meanwhile is only just getting on board. It's the latest big name to join the party, with the company's Windows 10 Creators Update set to introduce a new Windows Mixed Reality (previously Windows 10 VR) platform that's looking to take not just VR, but mixed reality, to lofty new heights.
We've heard that before though, many times, and although VR is growing in popularity, it's still hardly a mainstream must own. What's more, without that all important Xbox branding at least for now (see box out), the idea of Microsoft joining the VR race brings to mind the ability to manipulate spreadsheets in the virtual world more than a mass of can't miss experiences. Its early partners are HP, Acer, Lenovo, Asus and Dell.
Microsoft's arrival on the VR scene has the industry excited though, and could be exactly what the sector needs to transform from growing niche to true widespread adoption. Is Windows Mixed Reality really the future of mainstream virtual reality? And if so, what does that look like? We tried to find out.
The Mixed Reality element
Bringing affordable, accessible headsets to the masses is one thing, but as so many trendy technologies have proven in the past - just look at 3D TVs - content is key to their longterm success. Here, Microsoft is mixing things up, this time with a move to mixed reality.
Unfamiliar with the term? Mixed reality merges AR and VR elements to combine aspects of real and virtual worlds to offer truly unique, more engaging experiences. That means major step changes in the range of content available and how it interacts with our environments. The technology inside the headsets will be able to understand the room we're in.
"What we are talking about is something different," a Microsoft spokesperson told Wareable. "Windows is an open ecosystem that supports the entire spectrum of mixed reality, from 100% physical reality to 100% virtual reality and everything in between."
As an intro to what we can expect, the first device heading out to devs is Acer's Developer Edition headset. It has a passthrough camera up front, for the mixed reality features, a PS VR-style visor design as well as inside-out movement tracking. There's two displays with a resolution of 1440 x 1440, a refresh rate of 90 Hz and a single HDMI 2.0 and USB 3.0 cable.
That's pretty much all we know so far but overall, this places Windows Mixed Reality specs in the same bracket as the PlayStation VR so below the Rift, Vive and now LG's upcoming SteamVR headset.
Late to the party or just getting ready?
With Oculus, HTC, Samsung and Google having all already established themselves as serious VR players, it could be argued that Microsoft has already missed its window of opportunity. As you might expect, the company doesn't see this as a problem.
Instead, Microsoft is confident that the work it's been doing behind the scenes will be enough to see it land not just as another also ran, but as a pre-made VR force to be reckoned with.
"We've been on a decades long journey to make computing more personal, and this is a logical extension of that path," a Microsoft spokesperson told us. "We went from punch cards, to character based interfaces, to graphical interface, to touch, voice, pen, and gestures. Bringing computing into the 3-dimensional world that humans have always existed in is the next step in making computing truly more personal."
While you can expect Microsoft to toot its own horn, it's not the only one excited by the possibilities of the new platform. Dell, a day one headset partner, is confident not only in Microsoft's clout, but that the new platform will be a solid extension to what the market already offers. That said, all the headset makers, including Dell, are being very secretive at the moment; none are exactly forthcoming on details right now.
"Partnering with Microsoft, we now have an exciting opportunity to build on our work with HTC and Oculus to develop even more accessible VR solutions for all kinds of users," the manufacturer told us, referring to its VR-ready PCs.
There's more to Windows Mixed Reality than belief and hope though. It's a platform that is actively addressing the VR industry's current biggest pain points.
You'll actually be able to afford one
From 100% physical reality to 100% virtual reality and everything in between
VR is currently expensive. The headsets are expensive, the content is expensive, the development process is expensive. Yes, the likes of the Samsung Gear VR, Google DayDream and to an extent, Sony's PlayStation VR offer VR experiences without breaking the bank, but they're no match for devices which actively demonstrate the capabilities of true VR.
Price then, is a key area where Microsoft, with Windows Mixed Reality, can not only make itself relevant, but actively dominate. The key here is Microsoft's approach. Much like it's done with desktops and laptops for years, here it's the back end supplier rather than the hardware maker.
With the platform accessible to a number of manufacturers, this will create competition, and competition will lead to competitive price points. That goes for both the headsets and the PCs.
"The fact that Microsoft is launching a platform rather than just a headset will give consumers volume of choice in terms of headsets," said Amandine Flachs, VR specialist and communications manager at the Realities Centre, an AR and VR focussed London initiative. "They will be able to pick the headset they want for the price that they want."
She added: "If you are short of budget, you'll be able to pick up a more affordable headset. Even without the highest specced equipment, you'll still be able to experience VR."
Although devices won't launch until later this year, the list of headset partners is already an extensive one. It's not the most enthralling list though.
The likes of Dell, HP, Acer and Lenovo might all be big, well respected names in the tech sector, but they're brands you'd associate more with your affordable work laptop than enjoyment-heavy companies looking to push the boundaries of personal entertainment.
Regardless of perceptions, however, pair this boring but affordable style with serious scale, and you've got a formula that could ultimately take VR mainstream.
"We are always searching for the latest technologies that can help us develop the best, most affordable HMD possible," an official Dell spokesperson told us. "We're looking to develop Dell branded headsets that can put VR experiences within reach for virtually anyone."
Cutting VR's umbilical cord
Microsoft HoloLens tracking is here, hope the FOV is better
Price might be one of the biggest pain points for many looking to enter the realms of VR, but it's far from the only one.
The Windows-friendly Mixed Reality headsets don't yet possess the ability to go cable-free, wrapping all the necessary sensors and software within the headsets themselves. But it's clearly in its sights. A big start in providing a simpler set-up is the inside-out tracking, brought over from the Microsoft HoloLens, that doesn't need extra sensors and cameras around the house. That means you don't need a VR den, you can use it anywhere.
As we noted on the Acer's specs, it is a single cable back to the PC. No doubt wireless Mixed Reality devices are in the works - Microsoft has already demoed an untethered Windows reference headset and Asus is yet to show its cards.
"What I like about Microsoft VR is that you can move around the space," said Oksana Valentelis, developer and VR specialist at creative agency The Brooklyn Brothers.
Valentelis, who has previously worked on VR projects such as the award winning Samsung Bedtime Stories experience, added: "It opens up so many more possibilities because you're no longer attached to a singular space. You can move around. With this, Windows VR will open up so many doors. You can play with things in a virtual space and then get people to interact with those things. It will create a whole new layer."
According to the Realities Centre's Amandine Flachs, it's these cord-cutting ways that will ultimately give Microsoft the edge over what's already available.
"The headsets that will work with Windows 10 will be completely different to Rift and Vive because everything is included inside the headset. That will make adoption easier for people. Today with VR, the technology is great, but for the mass public it's still difficult with all the cables, cameras and space needed. Microsoft simplifies the concept and will change a lot in terms of adoption."
The range of accessories, too, will go from basic gamepads to motion tracked, six degrees of freedom controllers and wands. Input will also include a keyboard and mouse, if you're sitting at a desk, voice and - of course - gaze and select. Unlike what we've seen so far, Windows Mixed Reality will not be tied to one optimised set-up or experience.
Is this for gamers or not?
An Xbox VR render (not real)
While much of the VR space is currently focussing heavily on gaming, however, it's not expected in the wider industry that this will be Microsoft's key focus.
"They're not trying to position themselves as a competitor to the gaming industry, they're trying to find themselves a space for everyday use," said Valentelis. "It's like taking your computer's office and creative suites and just using them within VR.
"If they succeed, the office space in general will start to look really different. Oculus is aimed more towards the gaming industry where this is about creative suites and being able to multitask at the same time."
Valentelis's comments were echoed by Flachs who added: "VR is about more than gaming. This will look at industry application, integration into education and other forms of entertainment that's not gaming. The system requirements for these headsets are also a lot lower than what a big game would need for a good quality experience."
While developers and industry experts might not be overly bullish on Windows Mixed Reality's potential as a gaming platform, the company itself has other ideas. And don't forget, an Xbox One Mixed Reality headset has been teased.
"VR is great for gaming," a Microsoft spokesperson told us. "It can create an experience that makes users feel like they are transported to a different world, replacing the real world with a simulated one."
Given the Windows-friendly VR platform and compatible headsets have yet to drop, concrete software releases are yet to be confirmed.
Bring together gaming and non-gaming applications, combine it with the platform's wire-free ways with more affordable headsets, and Windows Mixed Reality quickly looks like one of the most exciting virtual reality prospects yet. Now it's just over to Microsoft to deliver on this potential.
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