Head-mounted displays (HMDs) are the in-trend technology of the time. Every week we hear of a new hardware manufacturer jumping on the bandwagon and assuring that they have a unique selling point (USP) that will allow them to compete against the large multi-national corporations, from Star VR’s 210 degree field-of-view to numerous smartphone holders. But in reality, the market is likely to be shared by the MVPs that have been grabbing headlines in the videogames industry for years: Valve, Oculus VR and Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE).
There are arguably 3 viable routes for virtual reality (VR) to arrive in consumers hands at present (discounting the on-board solution that may eventually presented by GameFace Labs): PC, console and mobile. You may think that this article is about to argue that Microsoft should follow one of these already established routes, but in fact the reality is very different. With the Windows ecosystem finally coming of age Microsoft have an opportunity to use the new medium in a support structure, as opposed to jumping on-board with an expensive VR HMD venture of their own.
Valve’s collaboration with HTC may have come as a surprise to many, but the HTC Vive is an obvious pairing of the many years of research and development conducted by the former and the manufacturing prowess established by the latter. This, coupled with the hugely impressive strides Oculus VR has taken between their original development kit (aka DK1) and the consumer version of the Oculus Rift suggest that the PC audience is sewn-up. They have two extremely high quality HMDs to choose from; one from a company that is integral to modern PC gaming and the other from that which is accredited with kickstarting this whole scene.
In a console war that is constantly seeing allegiances fraught and mass market numbers thrown down as if they were a drop in the ocean, SCE were first to play their hand. And what a hand. Project Morpheus may not benefit from the grunt of high-end PC processing power that the Oculus Rift can call upon, but it’s been playing keep-up elegantly. It’s software line-up makes fantastic use of the PlayStation 4 resources available to it and the form factor has obviously inspired Oculus VR’s consumer HMD design.
In terms of mobile, the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard already have the market largely to themselves. While there may be many competing HMDs around, Google’s low cost on entry and staggering shipping number cannot be knocked. Despite some issues with the use of smartphone hardware, the Gear VR has the high-end mobile software on it’s side.
PC users have two high quality options, console gamers looking to jump into VR will have their chance early next year and mobile VR is already proving to be a very attractive proposition. So where does that leave Microsoft? Exactly where they want to be.
Microsoft’s strategy for VR is very different. In fact, until the announcement of HoloLens (which itself is an altogether different proposition) you’d be forgiven for thinking that they didn’t have one. The view here is less of a wish to dominate the scene and more to reinforce their offering; ignite the faith in the Windows ecosystem that Microsoft have been trying so hard to cultivate since 2008.
The Xbox One and Windows 10 (along with the mobile edition of the latter) are paired in the exact manner that Microsoft once promised with the Xbox 360 and Windows 8. The difference now is that it works. Shared applications across all Microsoft devices – be it console, PC, tablet, smartphone or smartwatch – and easy access to personal data from Office files to entertainment. That latter part is important, of course, as while VR has opportunities to deliver many different kinds of experiences it is arguably entertainment that will be the driving factor over the next two years.
At Oculus VR’s ‘Step into the Rift’ press conference, San Francisco, last month, a partnership was revealed that would allow Xbox One videogames to be streamed to the consumer version of the Oculus Rift by way of a Windows 10 PC. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Xbox One will receive videogames designed for VR, it does add another string to the bow of this ecosystem: if you are buying a Windows 10 PC (which Oculus VR has committed to as their primary platform for the Oculus Rift) and a HMD, why not buy an Xbox One and make use of a feature set you already own? Likewise, if you have an Xbox One and a Windows 10 PC, the Oculus Rift can offer more versatility than a rival HMD. Or at least that was thought to be the case, until Microsoft also subtlety announced a partnership with Valve at their pre-E3 press conference just a week later.
The biggest crux in this is of course that streaming capability. Why now? Why is the promised Windows 8 feature-set finally worth investing in nearly 4 years after it was first revealed? The simple answer is that it works. The Xbox One is already able to stream to Windows 10 tablet, laptop and desktop PCs before the operating system (OS) has even launched. Those on the ‘preview programme’ for both Xbox One and Windows 10 are able to make use of this functionality right now, and despite some occasional hiccups and unfortunate lag, it works exactly as you’d hope. You can play all of your existing Xbox One videogames – including the recently announced Xbox 360 backwards compatible titles – on any Windows 10 PC. Adding HMD compatibility to this functionality isn’t going to shift millions of units, but it is going to reassure those already invested in one of the platforms that adoption of the other will present a feature-rich opportunity.
Microsoft’s VR strategy is perhaps the most interesting of any technology company out there, simply because it doesn’t begin with VR itself. It’s an accompaniment to existing technology proposals. While this may not win over the existing VR community – those who are firmly pressed to VRFocus every day scouring for the latest news – it is arguably a path to secure those on the fence about the potential of the new medium. And that in itself presents a great opportunity.