Microsoft’s big plan to conquer the next big battlefields in tech, namely virtual reality and augmented reality, is starting to come together. And it seems like the Microsoft Xbox has a surprising role to play.
In a presentation at this week’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, Microsoft unveiled a new VR headset, made by Acer and designed specifically for developing apps in virtual reality.
It starts shipping later in March. And in a move designed to get developers excited, everyone in the audience at Microsoft’s GDC session will be getting the headset for free. The goal is to drive people toward building VR apps for Windows 10.
Better still, the new headset is also the first and best showcase for Microsoft’s killer edge in the battle for VR supremacy with Facebook, Google, Sony, and HTC — it uses technology pioneered in the Microsoft HoloLens “holographic” headset to provide free range of motion without external cameras or sensors tracking you. Microsoft calls it “inside-out” tracking.
I got to try a prototype headset with the inside-out tracking enabled, and frankly, it was super nifty. In a demo that placed me in a hot air balloon over Maachu Pichu, I was able to poke my head over the side of the basket and look down. I could even lean over and look into a telescope’s eyepiece. It sounds small, but it’s freeing.
Future Microsoft-approved headsets from companies like Dell and Asus will have the same inside-out tracking enabled. Microsoft is now referring to this big push for AR and VR in Windows 10 as “Windows Mixed Reality,” and support for it will be arriving with the Windows 10 Creators Update this spring.
Most high-end virtual reality headsets, like the PlayStation VR, rely on a camera by your TV or monitor so the system can “see” when you turn your head and move your virtual vantage point accordingly. It works well, but it’s not exactly portable, and it limits the places where you can use it. Alternatively, phone-based headsets like the Samsung Gear VR are more portable, but often lack horsepower, positional tracking, and an easy method of control.
But when Microsoft built the HoloLens, the company worked hard to make it both powerful and self-contained, so you don’t need to hook it to a PC to function. These new Windows Mixed Reality headsets aren’t quite there yet. Inside-out tracking makes them more self-contained than HoloLens, but you’ll still need to have the new headsets hooked up to a PC.
And speaking of the PC, these headsets require a slightly less beefy computer to run, meaning more existing machines will be able to use them, and people buying in won’t have to spend as much. That, too, could be a big win over Facebook and other rivals.
The Xbox connection
Buried in Microsoft’s official announcement of that Acer developer kit is an interesting tidbit about its Xbox One video game console and Windows Mixed Reality:
We’re also excited to share that Windows Mixed Reality experiences will light up on other devices over time, beyond desktop and HoloLens. Our plan is to bring mixed reality content to the Xbox One family of devices, including Project Scorpio, in 2018.
This is particularly interesting, and here’s why. We’ve known for a while now that Microsoft is working on Project Scorpio, a souped-up version of the Xbox One video game console that the conventional industry wisdom holds will host powerful enough hardware to support high-end virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift.
But Microsoft’s word choice here is telling — the company is saying that the plan is to bring mixed reality, as in virtual reality, to the “Xbox One family of devices.” That would seem to include the original Xbox One console, and/or the more recent Xbox One S model.
So while Microsoft has nothing else to share (I asked, repeatedly), it sure sounds like in the next year or two, the Xbox One you might already own could be getting some kind of VR support. If Microsoft is trying to take over virtual reality, weaponizing the existing Xbox install base would make a lot of sense.