Microsoft Mixed Reality: The New VR Contender

As the first jingles of bells chime this holiday season, the monetarily tuned marketing ears of the tech industry focus on strapping headsets to an audience who’s been a tad gun shy for the past year or two. Microsoft, Oculus, Playstation, HTC are looking down the barrel of Q4 and the stakes are high, and they’ve laced up their gloves with discounts, innovations and content plays. Microsoft now has partnerships that give it headset availability from just about every company that’s ever sold a computer, but, in the end, it’s becoming more and more important to take a few steps back and look at the broadest spectrum of the picture: why in the world would I spend my hard-earned money on this?

In this article we’ll focus little on the VR and MR headsets themselves but stress the overall direction that Microsoft is moving towards in comparison to its competition. I believe that this knowledge is the most important aspect for the buyer and represents the most important conversation for the industry as a whole. Boiling it down past the rust and paint reveals the state of the industry for what it is: a content play. This core need has every player scrambling to ensure a delivery mechanism of exciting content to increasingly discerning buyers. After all, manufacturers don’t want to have obsolete hardware and buyers don’t want to end up with today’s equivalent of massive HDDVD towers or the wooden shelves of LaserDiscs, 8-Track players and BetaMax tapes.

Few Things About Microsoft’s Initial Jump Into the VR Market

Multiple Headsets

While HTC is famously open to indie developers and Oculus actively pursues what it considers ultra-premium content, Microsoft has opened itself broadly to as many platforms and headsets as possible via channel and technology partnerships. It’s a very different and intelligent route that they’ve started their journey with and a path that HTC and Oculus found themselves forced onto after months of trial and error. This direction keeps the strain off Microsoft having a singular end goal of marketing and making the world’s best and most popular headset. If they endow these other companies with the task of continuously pushing out lighter, cheaper and more innovative HMDs, the Microsoft’s VR team can concentrate on what’s really important… and that is… finding the best way to create, receive and deliver content.

Connecting the Microsoft Ecosystem

PowerPoint, Word and Excel make Microsoft synonymous with business applications. So far that hasn’t been the loudest discussion in VR but it is important because of the monetization aspect, and I think it’s an interesting direction to consider for the future of the brand especially considering that they’re first strike is in MR (but more on that later). On the other side of this, they have the gaming and entertainment side. This, of course, is a different and more immediate play and it’s quite interesting that they went to computers first instead of attaching it to Xbox. That speaks volumes in who they’re directly competing against first.

Playstation has won in a major way by connecting VR to the PS4 and there’s no way that Microsoft hasn’t kept notes. While there’s been a few hints that something just might happen the best (and most likely) play for them is to make these headsets compatible with the Xbox One and release that info along with an original game. This would make them into a VR content studio and a VR platform. It also allows them a little more time to build out a fully backed solution for the much more powerful Xbox One that will make the PSVR experience seem last gen.

In hindsight, people that have been following the industry will also recall that the original Oculus Rifts shipped with Xbox. I think that this is an important relationship to remember as preexisting. While some of these connecting points like ReVive have the capability to connect Vive to Oculus they’re just not native and many will not know or want to mess around with hacks like this.

For those of you that are interested here’s an article from VR Heads on how to connect Oculus to Steam. This, of course, means that if you can connect to Steam via Microsoft MR headsets then you’ll also be able to go into Oculus. See more about this issue in the following article about Microsoft MR. The conclusion here is that Microsoft will be able to connect and play Oculus and Vive content and will be making its own content. I’m guessing that they’ll try to have exclusive titles and the fight will be directly against its constant rival, Playstation. It’s a brilliant move to come fighting Playstation with a more expansive library and more powerful system.

Inside Out VR Technology

Getting rid of external trackers is huge and Microsoft has made the right play here. All Microsoft headsets adopt the same mixed reality technology that the Hololens uses. This takes the most time consuming and painful parts of a VR system setup out of the equation for buyers making these systems have a shorter setup time, more portable and more adaptable to environments.

If you’ve set up demos for studios or events then you know the pains of finding tripods that you can mount Vive Lighthouses, the painful wincing occurring when someone bumps your Oculus Rift Constellation Trackers or the light blindness of the Playstation Eye Camera when a window is in sight. My bet is that this technology will blend over time until opacity settings allow headsets or glasses to go from fully enclosed VR to open AR with a single gesture.

As battery usage dwindle and computational powers rise we’ll see mixed reality become the standard. Again, it’s important to remember that Microsoft has bet on MR for some time now with Hololens and this technology has been built upon as the standard in augmented reality thus giving the predecessors of these HMDs extreme versatility.

What is the Future of Microsoft Mixed Reality?

It’s not all roses, friendship, hugs, and Sweet Tarts though. While we’re looking at the differences in this new competitor we also need to understand the places that the competition is soundly beating Microsoft mixed reality.

First off, Oculus has cut Rift prices down to bare bones making it the same price for a better setup. This is, of course, dependent upon what your personal VR needs might be. Scaling back to higher and higher levels we look down on this wild time in VR and have to recognize the potential of Facebook. Is Oculus going to have a social aspect that will be closed off to competitors? That seems like a pretty obvious Facebook type of play, right?

I’ve been bullish on “SocialVR” since the beginning but I must admit that I’ve since become bored with the lack of movement. Yes, I’m excited for the future but not one of these platforms have enough of a community wearing headsets simultaneously to sufficiently power a globally engaged online community. This mixed reality play is a move in the right direction as we’ll begin to see more people able to interact within a physical space much like the Hololens.

In reality, Microsoft looks like it’s playing the right cards at the right time in this arduous game of poker. With what they call “OpenVR” they’re integrating Steam and those titles should play with no problem. We’ll just hope that the developers are attentive and normalize titles across headsets and controllers, but the end result is cost effective headsets with an expansive library.

In the end, this particular “new kid” on the block has come to the playground swinging a battle-axe. While it’s easily the best time to buy a VR system from any of these companies, the truth remains that I could utter those words at just about any month of the year and be completely on the level. Prices will continue to go down, headsets are destined get lighter and cool tech will be developed by amazing companies regularly. It’s up to us to decide when we want to learn more and how far ahead of the curve we want to be. Personally, I look forward to watching the continuing fight and the way that it looks to me at the moment is that we’re all going to win prettayyy big.