Anyone worried that Microsoft was pinning its immersive video game hopes on the HoloLens and its augmented reality (AR) capabilities can take heart in this unexpected development: Microsoft is also partnering with Facebook to bring the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset to market. This looks like a very big deal indeed.
To understand why, let’s first consider the differences between AR and VR from a gaming perspective.
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AR, as seen in HoloLens, basically overlays virtual elements over what you’re really seeing. So when you’re in a room, you see everything—chairs, tables, walls, whatever—in the room, but the AR headset will also display things that appear to be in the room, too, like Minecraft castles, characters, and bats. (Or whatever.) AR doesn’t replace reality, it augments it. Hence the name.
VR, as seen with Facebook’s Oculus Rift, is a fully immersive experience where the headset actually prevents you from seeing the real world. So what you’re seeing projected on the inside of the headset is a fully virtual environment—a virtual reality, if you will—that replaces reality.
Both approaches have their pros and cons, but VR has the wider applicability to gaming, I think, especially for those who wish to take shooters like Call of Duty or open world games like Grand Theft Auto to the next level. On the downside, VR can easily trigger a queasy feeling, like carsickness, that AR users won’t suffer from. And AR has extensive non-gaming possibilities, too.
Oculus Rift has been working on bringing its headset to market for years, and while I’ve only briefly used a previous generation public release, I think this is going to be the real deal … for gamers. And if you consider where video gaming is today, you can see where Oculus Rift support could really help make or break certain platforms. This is why, I think, Facebook’s alliance with Microsoft is so important.
Today, Microsoft is struggling in the video game console market, with Xbox One badly trailing the Sony PlayStation 4 and its Kinect efforts going nowhere fast. And the firm is simultaneously trying (some think pretending) to care about PC gaming again, and is infusing Windows 10 with all kinds of interesting game capabilities, including Xbox One integration.
Enter Oculus Rift. Microsoft isn’t just ensuring that its gaming products work with Oculus Rift. It has engineered a deal where its gaming products are a part of Oculus Rift. And that means the following:
Oculus Rift will ship with an Xbox One wireless controller in the box. Starting in early 2016, Xbox One will no longer be the only gaming hardware that ships with an Xbox One wireless controller, as the Oculus Rift will as well. As Microsoft notes, you will be able to play games on the Rift using the Xbox One controller wirelessly right out of the box.
Oculus Rift is compatible with Xbox One games. You may know that Microsoft will allow gamers to wirelessly stream Xbox One games to a Windows 10 PC or tablet, so that they can play games without sitting in front of the console. Well, Microsoft is bringing that capability to Oculus Rift as well, so you can play your Xbox One games in a more immersive way using Rift. “It’s just like playing in a private theater,” Microsoft says, “and you can even play with your friends through Xbox Live.”
Oculus Rift is also compatible with Windows 10 games. At its heart, Oculus Rift is designed for playing PC-based games, so Microsoft is positioning Windows 10 as “the best platform for playing games on the Oculus Rift.” Rift works natively with Windows 10 out of the box, including its DirectX 12 technologies, which should lead to some of the best-looking games available.
Folks, this is huge.
Kinect never really took off because waving your hands in the air to control on-screen widgets is both tiring and silly, and while its voice control capabilities are in fact excellent, that is something that can and should be made available sans an expensive peripheral. But Oculus Rift is something serious game players will embrace (unlike Kinect), and by making both of its new game platforms—Xbox One and Windows 10—compatible with Rift, Microsoft is putting Xbox back where it belongs, its original mission to satisfy the needs of hard core gamers.
Folks, you can watch Netflix on anything. But if you want the very best gaming experience, you’re looking at Xbox One (or Windows 10) and Oculus Rift. And that’s exactly what Microsoft needs to compete effectively with PlayStation 4 for a change.
Pricing will matter, of course, and that’s an open question right now. It’s a shame this couldn’t happen in time for the holidays, too, of course. But I have a good feeling about this one, a good feeling that counters my growing nervousness about HoloLens.