Can Microsoft Corp. succeed where Facebook failed?
In case you missed, it, Facebook’s $2 billion side bet on the Oculus Rift virtual reality system hasn’t paid off.
Microsoft thinks it can do better. It’s joined with five of the world’s biggest PC makers to launch its own immersive entertainment technology called Windows Mixed Reality. It’s an inelegant name, and not entirely accurate. For while the WMR system I tested delivered a very good virtual reality experience, it had nothing to do with true mixed reality.
Let’s review. In virtual reality, you‘re immersed in a computer-generated world entirely cut off from your actual surroundings. Augmented reality, such as that used by the smartphone game “Pokemon Go,” projects digital images atop the real world. And mixed reality is an advanced version of augmented reality that more completely integrates digital images into your surroundings.
As with VR, much of the early buzz about mixed reality is focused on gaming, but its potential is much greater. Mixed reality can be used to create 3-D scale models of products. Maintenance workers could use the technology to identify defective parts at a glance. Homeowners could digitally repaint and redecorate any room in the house, over and over, until they get exactly the right look.
Microsoft is leading the way with HoloLens, its remarkable head-mounted personal computer. Through its visor, you see the real world, combined with realistic 3-D images that interact with real physical objects.
The HoloLens uses an array of cameras to map a room and every object in it. Then it generates images that fit almost seamlessly into the environment. I’ve seen a HoloLens video game demo where digital characters appear to sidestep real pieces of furniture or sit on an actual sofa. It’s impressive, but comes at the massive price of $3,000.
By contrast, the Windows Mixed Reality system that I tried, from computer maker Acer, costs just $400. For that you get a headpiece similar to that of an Oculus Rift and a couple of weird-but-cool-looking hand-held controllers. Acer also lent me a Nitro 5, a $1,000 laptop designed for heavy-duty gaming.
But what didn’t come in the box was a mix of reality and make-believe. When I slipped on the headset, the “real” outside world vanished. The ability to interact with the walls and floor and furniture is completely absent. Windows Mixed Reality turns out to be just another virtual reality system, not very much different from the Oculus Rift.
Still, Microsoft’s technology is a lot easier to use than VR system like the Rift, which need remote video sensors installed in places in order to track the user’s head movements. The Windows Mixed Reality headset, like the HoloLens, relies on its own built-in cameras. As a result, setting up a Windows Mixed Reality system takes about a minute, and it’s easy to move from room to room.
Still, there’s no mixed reality here, just good old VR. And pretty good it is, too, especially when you use it with headphones and revel in the 360-degree surround sound effects. WMR also uses Microsoft’s Cortana speech recognition system, so you can control many apps with verbal commands. There are also a set of Bluetooth-connected hand-held controllers that came in handy while testing the lively shoot-’em-up game “Space Pirate Trainer.”
I had worse luck with a game based on the “Ghostbusters” movies, which refused to work properly. But most of the limited array of VR apps featured 3-D video tours of exotic locales ranging from the sidelines of a Patriots game, to the airborne movie set where Tom Cruise filmed part of “The Mummy” in zero gravity.
There are only a couple dozen VR apps at the Microsoft store, but Wednesday, Windows Mixed Reality devices were given access to the popular PC online gaming store Steam, which has over 2,000 VR titles.
PC makers Lenovo, Dell, HP, and Samsung also make WMR devices that can be plugged into any PC running the free “Creators Update” to the Windows 10 operating system. But many older and cheaper machines won’t be capable of running the software. For best results, you’ll want a late-model box with a high-end graphics card. But Microsoft says WMR won’t need the kind of hardware that the Rift demands.
Still, while cheap, smartphone-based VR devices like Samsung’s Gear VR have been big sellers, there’s little evidence consumers want fancier systems tethered to computers. Only one such device, Sony’s PlayStation VR, has generated decent sales — 1.8 million units in its first nine months, according to SuperData Research of New York. Meanwhile HTC’s tethered system, the Vive, sold just 667,000 units and the Rift a mere 383,000.
I wouldn’t be surprised if WMR systems collectively outsell the Oculus Rift; that’s a pretty low bar to clear. But having tried HoloLens, I’m convinced there’s a huge market for a true mixed reality headset priced below $1,000. And just calling something a mixed reality device isn’t good enough. I’m holding out for the real thing.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.