Microsoft is the clear leader in augmented reality but it sat on the sidelines as virtual reality started taking off. No more: This week, Microsoft finally unveiled a formal VR strategy. And get this: It actually makes sense.
I’ve been meaning to write an overview of available VR solutions, but the short version goes like this: There are now numbers VR options out there that range in both price and capabilities, with Google Cardboard at the low-end, DayDream VR and Samsung Gear VR as more capable phone-based solutions, PlayStation VR at the sweet spot, and high-end products like Oculus Rift—which require expensive gaming PCs and an assortment of hardware clutter—at the top.
Microsoft’s new VR strategy appears to put the coming VR headsets—which will come from PC maker partners like Lenovo, HP, Dell, Acer, and ASUS—in the same basic sweet spot as the PSVR. That is, they will be capable devices with immersive experiences, though they will be tethered to, and require, a PC. The good news? That PC could cost as little as $500, a far cry from the $1500 or more for an Oculus PC. And the headsets will cost as little as $300.
For Microsoft’s part, it is doing what it always does: Supplying the platform bits needed in Windows to drive these solutions. These will apparently come as part of Windows Holographic, from what I can tell. But they will arrive with the Windows 10 Creators Update, regardless. So we’re looking at Spring 2017 for the software. It’s not year clear what the schedule is for the hardware, but that would of course by the earliest time.
What’s most interesting, perhaps, is that the Microsoft VR solutions will not require a lot of the extraneous hardware that we typical see on high-end VR systems. And that’s because the headsets will utilize so-called “inside-out tracking sensors,” or what enables the “six degrees of freedom” that Microsoft repeatedly mentioned on stage this week. So you won’t need to setup your own VR studio to get them to work properly.
What these solutions will not offer, of course, is support for holograms. That functionality will require higher-end, HoloLens-type hardware, and will be a lot more expensive. But that’s not entirely terrible. In speaking with a source who has experienced Microsoft’s platform, I was told that the field of view is totally immersive, like other VR solutions, and not limited to the “mail slot” view we get today on HoloLens. The performance, too, is purportedly excellent.
Microsoft’s relative silence on VR while it touted the expensive and vertical market-focused HoloLens has made me nervous that it was going to miss another big platform. But this week’s event has cooled those fears. It looks like Microsoft is on track with a great VR strategy.