In all of the virtual reality discussions of recent years, one company with a strong presence in both PC and console gaming has been conspicuously absent: Microsoft. Microsoft owns the PC platform on which the high-end VR headsets (Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive) run, and while the Xbox One ranks second in the living room, it’s a major gaming platform nonetheless. But when asked about its VR plans, the company had nothing to say; closest thing to any involvement was bundling Xbox controllers with the Rift.
Even more curiously, Microsoft nevertheless claimed to have ambitions in the VR space. In June, the company said that Windows Holographic, the variant used on the HoloLens augmented reality headset, would be made available for third-party hardware, both VR and AR. In August, the company went one step further, saying that a 2017 update to Windows 10 would bring these 3D features into the default Windows 10 desktop system.
It turns out that this is just the beginning. This update, which will be called the Creators Update, contains a lot of 3D functionality. During its presentation yesterday, Microsoft demonstrated scanning physical objects on a phone, creating 3D scenes in a new Paint 3D application, 3D printing them, and viewing them on AR and VR headsets. 3D creation is pushed to the foreground.
This is a big change, but it feels like a strange one: no one actually owns the Oculus Rift or the Vive. VR can make parts of the gaming community salivate, and it may be the next big thing, but its market penetration is negligible at this point. These PC headsets are expensive and have significant demands on space and PC performance. They’re also tedious to set up, requiring not only the headsets themselves, but motion-tracking cameras or sensors for so-called “room-scale VR.”
But Microsoft also provided a way for VR to become much more widespread and much easier to launch. While the company spent surprisingly little time on it, it announced that HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and Acer would all be producing their own VR headsets. Not only do these headsets have built-in support for the operating system, but they also have two major advantages over current hardware.
First, they’d start relatively cheap at $299. We’re not sure exactly what performance and visual quality we’re getting for $299, of course, but that’s a competitive price. The Oculus Rift costs $599 and the HTC Vive costs $799. Even the PlayStation VR costs $399 – $299 threatens to undermine all of these significantly.
Second, these headsets would eliminate the complex setup, eliminating the need for motion tracking boxes. Current headsets contain three-axis sensors that can detect rotation around their three dimensions. However, they cannot detect translations in any direction. This is what the motion boxes are for; they can detect movement through space and make it move in virtual environments. This new generation of headsets will feature six degrees of freedom motion sensing, tracking both rotation and translation directly from the headset itself. This in turn eliminates the need for the motion boxes, making installation much easier and more flexible. You can use them in any room in your home (or office) without worrying about going out of reach of the boxes.
Six degrees of freedom sensing is also a very difficult problem to solve without external references, and the technique used remains unknown. HoloLens, with its array of sensors, can accomplish this, but the VR headsets Microsoft has pictured don’t immediately seem to have the complexity of HoloLens.
Much is still unknown about Microsoft’s plans. Performance, visual quality and GPU requirements are all great unknowns, and GPU requirements in particular are enough to keep current PC VR headsets away from the mainstream audience. Existing PC VR companies were also missing from the announcement. This is perhaps not surprising in the case of HTC, as its software partner, Valve, already has a strained relationship with Microsoft. It’s unlikely that Valve will appreciate Redmond’s attempt to penetrate further into its territory. But the absence of Oculus was a little more surprising, given that the companies have taken the stage together in the past. Perhaps the relationship between Microsoft and these companies will become clearer as we learn more about what the Windows VR platform will really be.
With this combination of software and hardware (third-party), Microsoft seems to be able to turn from a complete no-player in the VR space to a major platform owner in a matter of months. It seems the company really had a plan for VR all along – it just took the time to talk about it.