Just ahead of IFA this week in Berlin, Microsoft is providing a sneak peek at the Windows Mixed Reality solutions it plans to release alongside its hardware partners this holiday season.
“As a creator, it is inspiring to see the world embrace mixed reality; to see organizations and developers stretch the boundaries of what we can do with technology,” Microsoft’s Alex Kipman writes. “Together we have created the most vibrant mixed reality community out there and it has been phenomenal to share in this journey with our community.”
This journey, as Kipman calls it, has required a few side-trips.
Microsoft announced its HoloLens technology at a Windows 10 event in January 2015, and it has slowly pushed the technology out to developers and a limited set of vertical markets. It is not mainstream technology, and likely never will be.
So Microsoft recalibrated, and started down a side road called Windows Mixed Reality, a technology that is only somewhat related to HoloLens. That is, Windows Mixed Reality combines the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) solutions we see today in smartphones and gaming PCs with some positional sensor technology that Microsoft first used in HoloLens. So the resulting headsets should be much easier to set up than cumbersome PC-based solutions like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
In addition to being a lot less expensive, Windows Mixed Reality headsets are also more portable than HoloLens or any PC-based VR solution. You can easily transport a headset (and a compatible portable PC) to other locations and not be confined to a single room.
The downsides to Windows Mixed Reality, however, are many. The quality of the display on the headsets we’ve heard about so far is only a bit better than that found on phone-based VR/AR solutions, at least in the first generation of devices. This was a compromise to make the headsets affordable and usable on normal PCs; other PC-based VR solutions are quite expensive and require hefty gaming PCs.
Anyway, the first Windows Mixed Reality headsets will finally arrive for consumers this holiday season, as planned. (A few headsets were made available to developers over the summer in the hope that some would actually make apps and games for the system.) Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo are known to be building the headsets—and probably other companies too—and we will learn more about at least some of them this week at the IFA trade show in Berlin. Prices start at $399, and the headsets will be compatible with PCs that Microsoft says cost as little as $499.
“Along with our partners, we are committed to making mixed reality affordable,” Kipman notes.
But here’s where things get interesting. Somewhat answering my complaints about the display quality, Microsoft is today announcing a certification, of sorts, for PCs that are capable of using Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
A group of PCs called Windows Mixed Reality PCs will consist of desktops and laptops with integrated graphics that will offer MR content performance of 60 frames per second. But more powerful PCs with discrete graphics, called Windows Mixed Reality Ultra PCs, will run at 90 frames per second.
As part of this sneak peek, Kipman also revealed that Microsoft is working with 343 Industries (which it owns) to bring Halo games to Windows Mixed Reality. That said, I wouldn’t expect such a title this year. Nor is it clear if these future titles will be full Halo games or just mobile games.
More important, perhaps, Steam content will also run on Windows Mixed Reality. This should dramatically improve the gaming experience on the platform.
Kipman says that MR is “the future,” but I honestly don’t see this evolving into much more than a subset of the PC gaming market. Especially with this limited first generation of products. But I am, of course, curious to see how things develop.