When people talk about the companies powering virtual reality, they generally talk about Facebook-owned Oculus, HTC, Samsung, and Google. But Microsoft wants to be a big part of that conversation, and completely transform it, too.
This holiday season, the first group of what are called Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality devices–but which are really third-party high-end tethered (meaning, requiring wires that are connected to a PC) VR headsets made using Microsoft’s reference design–will begin shipping. The company had already announced devices from Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, but today, it said that Samsung has joined that group. The first four of those will begin shipping October 17, with Samsung’s device available for pre-order today and shipping November 6. It will cost $499.
What is “mixed reality?” It’s VR with the potential for more in the future. In a blog post, Microsoft’s Alex Kipman wrote that “With mixed reality, our ideas move beyond the boundaries of paper, beyond the boundaries of screens, and beyond the boundaries of description. This is the fundamental promise of mixed reality. The barrier that exists between our physical and digital worlds will disappear.”
Microsoft has some ground to stand on here. Its Hololens is a high-end, multi-thousand dollar system that blends holograms and elements of VR with physical space, and the ability to work with augmented reality on complex tasks like professional design. But as of today, consumer Windows Mixed Reality systems swim much closer to the VR end of the pool. Still, Microsoft insists that before long, its system will merge AR and VR. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” said Kipman, “in the near future, devices will do both.”
As The Verge wrote recently of mixed reality, “Microsoft has picked that name because it eventually wants to blend the best of augmented and virtual reality into a single headset with support for multiple experiences.” But it’s not there yet, and there’s no known timeline for when it will get there. Right now, each of the five mixed reality headsets will offer experiences similar to that available on competing VR systems.
Still, the Windows 10 Mixed Reality operating system does offer some features no others can match. It allows each user to create their own personalized space in which they can set up all kinds of in-world windows–things like weather applications, digitized picture frames, even browser windows, as well as watch movies, play games, listen to music, and enjoy other kinds of media content. Essentially, it allows user to have a 3D Windows environment that can be manipulated with voice commands and hand-held controllers.
All that said, it’s not yet clear if a collection of new Microsoft-powered headsets can help kickstart the consumer VR industry, let alone a true mixed reality ecosystem. Although analysts have predicted VR will be a $38 billion industry by 2026, VR hardware sales have been slow to date. However, some of the things holding the industry back are expected to be resolved with the release of new generations of hardware this year and next.
The slate of Windows Mixed Reality devices could help. That’s because they offer many of the features of systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive–including letting users move around in 3D space by tracking their motion–and doing so without the need to mount external sensors around the edges of a room.
Instead, the new headsets have built-in sensors that can track markers located on hand-held controllers.
Samsung’s new headset, dubbed the HMD Odyssey, offers a 110-degree field of view, and features dual AMOLED displays, built-in spatial AKG headphones, the same kind of inside-out tracking as mentioned above, a built-in microphone, and wireless motion controllers.
One of the earliest and most celebrated developers of what’s come to be known as social VR–putting multiple people together in VR environments–was the Silicon Valley startup AltspaceVR. Over a couple of years, the company built a system that allowed users to gather to play games, watch sports, listen to music, and even hang out with celebrities.
But revenue was difficult to come by, and in July, it announced that it was closing up shop on August 3 due to financial difficulties. On August 15, however, Altspace said it was keeping its doors open after all thanks to tons of support from users and that “we’re now deep in discussions with others who are passionate about AltspaceVR who want to guarantee that our virtual oasis stays open.”
It’s now safe to assume that Microsoft was on the other side of those discussions. Today, Microsoft said it has brought the entire Altspace team onboard and that together, “we look forward to building the world’s preeminent mixed reality community.”
Microsoft did not reveal any other details about the integration of Altspace, including the price it paid for the startup, nor whether it will be allowed to continue operating its social VR environments. However, Microsoft’s Alex Kipman says that from day one, Microsoft will be “keeping [Altspace] precisely where they are.”
In a statement, Altspace itself said, “it’s important for us to communicate that AlspaceVR will stay AltspaceVR. We will remain cross-platform and focus our time on connecting with our community and making sure AltspaceVR is a vibrant and friendly place to hang out in virtual reality.”
For further proof that Microsoft is touting its VR bona fides, the company also said today that developers can now access the Windows Mixed Reality SteamVR preview. SteamVR, of course, is home to one of, if not the, largest collections of VR games and other experiences. It’s at the heart of HTC’s Vive, and also works on the Oculus Rift. At launch, users of the Windows Mixed Reality systems will also be able to access the SteamVR catalog.
Another big win for the platform is that Halo: Recruit, the newest title in the massively successful Halo franchise, is coming to Windows Mixed Reality. Gamers will be able to try it out in Microsoft Stores starting October 17, and it will also be available as a free download the same day.
Taken together, Microsoft’s announcements paint a picture of the start of a rich VR platform. Whether or not that platform can surpass that of Oculus, HTC, or Sony’s PlayStation VR is hard to say. Then again, it’s also clear that Microsoft is setting the table for an even richer platform down the line. If it’s able to pull that off, it will truly early the name “mixed reality.” For now, though, the company’s going to have to be content with people referring to what it’s created as “virtual reality.”