Today, I learned of Microsoft's big push into the virtual reality scene with their new initiative known as Windows Mixed Reality. This new step includes new headsets from various tech companies, a hub called Cliff House, VR games in the windows store, and more. I wanted to talk about this because I feel that this is the first step to a more affordable and accessible VR and could be the start of a bigger push into the landscape that could finally get VR to be a widely used device.
In my opinion, VR is something that should've waited until the time and tech was right. I felt its release was too early, as for the hardware to run the device had to be top-notch, and the amount of content available was not enough. In other words, VR started as a pricey device with no standout games that made you want to go to the platform. That and many more issues plagued HTC Vive and Oculus Rift at launch, which left VR in a state of a product filled with potential yet lacking the manpower to use that tool. To this day, a lot of these problems still exist, even with Oculus and HTC heavily dropping the price on their headsets.
Well, Microsoft and all of the companies developing for Microsoft's new initiative decided to take their time and wait, as for they have now just entered the VR landscape today with everything already stated above. If everything is what they say it is, this could be the first step into an actual shift into VR.
I wanted to start with a clarification about the name Mixed Reality. At first, I thought they were talking about augmented reality, but discovered that they are not the same. Instead, mixed reality is actual in between augmented and virtual, and they do this by essentially doing the opposite of augmented reality. Instead of putting virtual objects in the real world, physical objects are put into the virtual world. Honestly, this and augmented reality are the weaker parts of this new shift, as for they have very little content behind. I believe that augmented reality will be the next big thing, but I don't see this as the start of it. A lot of the focus instead is on virtual reality, and that is where things are exciting.
The specs of the headsets are very similar both between each other and between Oculus and Rift, so buying at the cheaper price point doesn't mean a worse product. And while the older sets are now around the same price point, these newer ones offer features that offers easier use. Instead of mounting cameras around your room, mixed reality puts the tracking cameras into the headset, which track the controllers. Also, the system supports lower spec computers and laptops and will only take up one USB 3 and HDMI port. These new features can also make the headset a bit more portable. If you have a compatible laptop, then the headset can also come without the need of lugging around cameras as well.
All of the features stated and more tells me two things about this product: simplicity and accessibility. If you have the VR audience be limited to people who understand the complex hardware and software and have the money to afford all of it, then you will have developers who won't make games for the headsets due to risk of not making profit. In the end, these headsets will be played a lot in stores that demo the headsets because store demos are the only practical way to use Rift and Vive. With this headset, you have a cheaper product that has an easier setup both in hardware and software that is perfect for someone who wants to plug in and play. On top of that, if mixed reality is put into the stores as demos, showing the ease of use as well as the gameplay of the headsets could show a big shift in the VR population.
Unfortunately, not everything is perfect with this new product. I think that launching four headsets with more on the way while having little difference between them other than look is confusing. To find out that these headsets are similar, I had to look up the specs and compare them, which is a complexity that goes against its simplicity. Also, the controllers look and are said to be rather clunky compared to the Rift controllers. I think a good controller is a big aspect of a good VR experience, so the clunky controllers is a little disheartening. Finally, the headsets are limited to the small library on the Windows store until they are supported on SteamVR at the end of the year. The end of the year is coming soon though, so the wait won't be too long.
Despite some flaws, I feel that Mixed Reality is the best chance currently of bringing VR to a much larger audience by making it simple and accessible. I hope that these headsets bring in a large enough audience for developers to start making more and better games for the system, which in turn could start the big VR movement that we all thought would happen when it started. I just hope that its late arrival will not deter the headset. Whether or not this new initiative will be successful will only be told as time passes, but I do hope that this is the beginning of a true VR phase.