Microsoft goes all in on VR

Hololens is the defining example of mixed reality computing.

Let’s recap:

Less than two years ago — seemingly out of nowhere — Microsoft reveals the very first manufacturing prototype of Hololens. No one had heard anything about Hololens before Microsoft’s premiere, and it certainly took the tech world by storm. While everyone focused on Oculus/Valve/Sony and the race to VR, Microsoft took another tack entirely, favouring mixed over virtual reality.

At E3 this year Microsoft announced ‘Project Scorpio’, a next-generation Xbox that will have both backward compatibility with Xbox One and full VR capabilities.

In August, at the Intel Developer Forum, Microsoft announced that Windows Holographic — the mixed reality OS powering Hololens — will be fully integrated into the next anniversary release of Windows 10, from August next year.

That’s a very impressive list of manufacturing partners.

This morning, Microsoft announced a new partnership with essentially all the big PC manufacturers — HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus — to bring to market a range of relatively inexpensive VR headsets that use ‘inside-out’ tracking (as pioneered in Hololens) providing room-scale VR with “Zero need for a separate room. Zero need for a complicated setup.”

Finally, there will be 3D capture and content creation tools in the newly announced ‘Creators Update’ of Windows 10, to be released in March 2017.

What we’re seeing here are the final steps in a strategy that has to have been some years in the making — Microsoft is turning itself into the preeminent VR company, providing both core software and hardware technologies, at a price point that will range from $299 — for a VR headset plugged into an Project Scorpio Xbox or Windows 10 workstation— all the way up to $3000 for a stand-alone mixed reality headset, the Hololens.

All of these devices run the same basic software — Windows 10 Holographic. All of them provide room-scale experience using broadly similar technology. All of them together occupy nearly every niche in an ecosystem of VR and mixed reality devices and applications that span from the casual home user through to the enterprise.

Back in July, after I had my first taste of Hololens, I wrote that if I were Satya Nadella, I’d bet the company — the whole, half-trillion dollar beast — on Hololens. It seems that long before I wrote those words, that strategy had already been set in play.

We’re now watching the world’s largest software company execute a fundamental shift in orientation, toward a new computing paradigm. Having fumbled the mobile moment, Microsoft has the inside track to be the overwhelming power in the era of mixed reality.

As Wolf Cocklin noted:

When Microsoft baked a browser into Windows, it changed the way we thought about the web, this is the same and is coming in a few months.

This changes everything. As of today, the largest software company in the world has gone all in on mixed reality.

Update: In a report published on the 27th, Microsoft has targeted WinHEC (8–9 December) to introduce more details of their family of devices — and have indicated the inside-out tracking is, in fact, adopted from Hololens.