Stunning 3-D digital imagery, delivered directly to your eyeballs: This is the future of computing, say Facebook and Microsoft, which are placing big bets on virtual reality to be the new way we’ll interact with technology. Rift—from Oculus VR, which Facebook bought last year for $2 billion—hits shelves the first quarter of 2016. Microsoft’s HoloLens could show up as early as this fall, though Microsoft has been vague about its release plans.
Both Rift and HoloLens are headsets that use tiny LCD screens and motion sensors to alter the reality around you. But their differences are as striking as the similarities. Rift shuts out the real world altogether, creating a computer-generated environment that can transport you anywhere from an alien planet to an urban cityscape. By contrast, HoloLens’s mixed reality overlays 3-D images on the real world, such as a “hologram” of a tiny building that appears to be sitting on a coffee table that’s really in front of you.
Like practically everybody who has had the opportunity to test-drive Rift, I knew it had the potential to be transformative within seconds of strapping it on for the first time. When I stared down a dinosaur that was roaring in my face, my brain forgot that it was processing computer graphics in a way that was new. Standing on a skyscraper’s ledge, peering down at the city below, gave me vertigo.
Trying HoloLens is also fun and fascinating. But more than Rift, the experience feels like a work in progress. The version I used at a Microsoft conference in April 2015 was actually less impressive than an earlier prototype, because the “holograms” were visible only when they were smack in the middle of my field of view–a technical limitation that Microsoft’s splashy HoloLens videos don’t convey.
It’s only natural that Rift feels more fully baked. The gizmo first attracted attention back in August 2012, when Oculus raised almost $2.5 million in a Kickstarter campaign. It began shipping developer-kit headsets to backers the following March, and has revealed multiple upgrades to its system since then, each a bit more dazzling than the last. Those who are curious enough about the technology to experiment with an early version can buy the Oculus Developer Kit 2 edition right now for $350. Oculus hasn’t yet announced the price for next year’s consumer version, but says that $1,500 will cover the cost of both the headset and the powerful PC it requires.
Microsoft managed to keep HoloLens under wraps until last January, when it announced the device at a Windows 10 media event. The company has shown off prototypes–and allowed journalists such as me to get hands-on time–but hasn’t released the product into the wild in any form. It’s also been vague about when the device will reach consumers, saying only that it will arrive at some point during a time window that begins this fall but has no specified end point. The price remains undisclosed, but unlike Rift, HoloLens is a standalone device, not a PC peripheral: It will run its own built-in version of Windows 10.
Oculus has also spelled out a more focused strategy for how it plans to introduce its headset to the world. VR has the potential to be a game-changer with an array of applications, including social networking, moviemaking, education, and–inevitably–porn. But at first, Rift will cater to the type of serious gamers who already own a potent PC rather than the masses. Its gaming-centric VR competitors will include HTC’s Vive, Sony’s PlayStation-powered “Project Morpheus,” and an open-source device called OSVR backed by PC company Razer.
With HoloLens, Microsoft’s ambitions still seem to be all over the place. It’s talking about gaming–in the form of a holographic version of Minecraft, which it acquired last fall–but has also shown off demos involving everything from prototyping products to teaching anatomy to (in partnership with NASA) exploring Mars. Mixed reality will likely be a less crowded category than VR. But HoloLens does face a possible arch-rival in the form of Magic Leap, the deeply secretive startup from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that has raised a startling $542 million in funding from investors such as Google, Qualcomm, and Andreessen Horowitz.
It’s possible that HoloLens’s sweet spot will turn out to be less about entertainment and more about practical stuff, which would let it peacefully coexist with Rift. And Microsoft, whose ties with Facebook go all the way back to the $240 million investment it made in the social network in 2007, turns out to be a surprise Oculus partner. In June, the two companies announced that the Rift will be bundled with an Xbox One controller, and will be able to stream games from an Xbox via Windows 10. For Microsoft, that’s a clever side bet that could boost its ecosystem–no matter what happens with its own headset.