Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, Microsoft held a special event in San Francisco to introduce its Windows Mixed Reality platform, along with a series of mixed reality headsets from several hardware partners. CCS Insight saw and tried many of these devices at the recent IFA event in Berlin (see IFA 2017: Augmented and Virtual Reality).
Mixed reality is the concept of blending virtual reality (VR) content, such as high-fidelity visuals and immersive experiences, with some of the aspects of augmented reality (AR), which fuses real-life surroundings with digital objects. In contrast to VR, a mixed reality headset can sense physical objects around a user thanks to cameras and sensors. Programming wizardry is then used to merge the two worlds.
There's some semantic confusion here. Microsoft refers to its platform as mixed reality, yet the headsets it introduced to support it function just like other VR headsets on the market. This is because Microsoft's platform is flexible, designed to be used in devices such its AR-centric HoloLens. But the company envisions that headsets that can smoothly combine VR and AR will eventually come to market.
Six Windows Mixed Reality headsets have been launched, ranging in price from $399 to $499. All support left and right motion controllers. They are manufactured by Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung, meaning that Microsoft has the backing of the world's top PC makers and the biggest smartphone maker. The first headsets will start shipping on 17 October 2017.
An app-store ghost town means death to even the best hardware, and Microsoft knows that a rich content library is vital for success. The company plans to open its catalogue of 20,000 mixed reality applications to the public on the same day the hardware becomes available. In addition to this, Microsoft has partnered with games distribution platform Steam to offer a strong range of VR titles.
As part of its on-stage product demonstration, Microsoft announced that it has acquired AltSpace, a social networking service that enables people to meet as avatars in a virtual world, communicating with real-time voice and pulling together several physical sites into a digital one. There are ambitions to turn this into a social communication and entertainment platform.
Microsoft introduced its Windows Mixed Reality as a coming shift in the computing user experience, evolving from a command-line and mouse-driven graphical user interface. The ability to interact with content using the entire body and using only voice input would be an advancement in natural user interfaces. Microsoft's demonstration was impressive. The company is promoting the platform as a complement to PCs rather than a replacement.
To an increasing degree, Microsoft is encroaching on Facebook's territory with hardware and services. Facebook clearly has many of the same ambitions. Its Oculus unit is a leader in tethered VR headsets and its library of games and cinematic experiences is growing. Facebook is also throwing financial and technical muscle behind Oculus, with full support from its founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is an enthusiastic proponent of VR.
The market for virtual, augmented or mixed reality technology has started and stalled several times, but not because of lack of effort. We don't doubt that one company is on the verge of getting it right. Microsoft has exhilarated the market before with its HoloLens headset, whetting the appetite of developers and early adopters. The device was first released in 2016 and created hope for the future, but for many, it felt as if the headset would be a prototype, pre-production or, at best, a developer edition forever. Now that commercial versions of Microsoft's platform, albeit focused on VR, are hitting the market, the demand for these headsets is being put to the test. For Microsoft, this is also another operating system play, adding a new dimension to the importance of driving this nascent market.
CCS Insight's latest forecast of the market for VR and AR head-worn devices has recently been published and is available to CCS Insight clients here.