Microsoft blows open the VR race with a quiet bombshell
It's not about Scorpio; competitively priced, cross-compatible headsets will finally give the PC a VR platform that can compete with Sony's PSVR
Those who cling fervently to tech allegiances of yesteryear might bristle at this suggestion, but of late it's become increasingly obvious; Microsoft is getting more and more like Apple in many regards. Like its competitor and frenemy down the coast in Cupertino, Microsoft has adopted a tech strategy that focuses on being better rather than being first. With everything from cloud services to Xbox to Surface, the company isn't so much innovating as polishing; taking ideas that have been done before, for better or worse, and giving them a degree of shine, lustre and usability, along with a place in the sprawling Microsoft ecosystem. Like Apple, so often mocked for failing to do things first by those who lack an understanding of the importance of doing things well, Microsoft nowadays is rarely the first guest at a party, but it's usually the one who turns most heads when it walks in.
It's in this context that Microsoft's announcement of its VR plans, or at least of the broad shape of its VR plans, is a quiet game-changer for the industry. PC VR finds itself in a peculiar place right now. It's quantifiably better than PlayStation VR in many regards, but PSVR has Sony's backing, a reasonable price-tag, a popular, standardised piece of hardware powering it, and has probably already sold through more units than any PC VR headset, or even all of them combined. Even as Sony cleans up in terms of market share and public perception, there's an odd little standards war - a standards skirmish, perhaps - being fought between Oculus and HTC, something the PC VR sector can ill-afford at this point in its tentative development.
"This is unquestionably a huge deal for PC VR, one which stands to make it genuinely competitive with Sony's offering"
In walks Microsoft, with a low-key announcement that looks like it will ultimately change the face of this part of the industry. The gist appears to be that Microsoft is creating a baseline specification and outline for VR headsets which will form the basis for new, relatively low-cost headsets from the likes of HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus - all of whom are signed up to create devices. We don't know about the specs yet, but given the price tag, something similar to PSVR seems reasonable (and we now know that that's a perfectly good entry level VR device). Crucially, the baseline specifications seem to include 'inside-out' tracking - meaning they'll track your movements from the headset itself, rather than needing cameras or sensors positioned around the room, which are a major impediment to consumer adoption of VR as it stands.
This is unquestionably a huge deal for PC VR, one which stands to make it genuinely competitive with Sony's offering, especially if Microsoft's VR support in Windows 10 makes setting up and using the devices seamless, and if the baseline PC spec for using VR applications is dropped to something reasonable. While Oculus and HTC/Valve will remain significant players in the space in some capacity - likely at the high end - it's not unreasonable to expect that Microsoft's specification will become the baseline for the whole market. That's not a bad thing; a baseline spec with room for innovation on features, design and pricing will provide consumers with healthy competition without risk of a standards war or of clashing, incompatible software and hardware issues. It's exactly what the sector needs.
It's also a major boost for VR as a consumer proposition. It's still, to some degree, a solution in search of a problem, and I maintain that the applications for VR in the consumer space will be significantly more limited, both in appeal and in function, than many proponents of the technology anticipate. Microsoft's HoloLens AR system, which the company appears to now accept as being a related technology to VR, rather than insisting on clear blue water between the technologies, is a much more exciting prospect in terms of changing how we interact with the machines and information in our lives - but being realistic, it's also far, far further down the line, and faces significantly higher technical hurdles than VR. Indeed, the hurdles they face are similar, to the extent that it's fair to say we simply can't have convincing AR until such time as we have damned near perfect VR - so it makes sense for a firm with AR as its ultimate goal to throw its weight behind VR now.
For all that VR's true appeal in the consumer market is uncertain, though, it will be a huge boost to have a wide range of cross-compatible headsets on the market, with the accompanying competition between manufacturers. If VR headsets become normalised as something that you can buy with a new PC or laptop, just as you click a button to buy an external keyboard or display now, the number of consumers willing to take the plunge for a few hundred dollars more will undoubtedly be significant. VR's technical challenges, in many ways, pale in comparison to the social challenge it faces; by normalising headsets as an ordinary device with many manufacturers, designs and price points, not to mention one supported natively by the most popular operating system in the world, Microsoft's initiative takes a big step in the right direction.
"In a sense, Microsoft's quiet bombshell marks the real beginning of the consumer VR race. Sony's got a major head start and a great product; its task now is to put as much water between itself and Microsoft before the arrival of the Windows 10 headsets as possible"
Much attention within the games business, of course, will be focused on the potential interaction between Microsoft's headsets and Scorpio. It seems inevitable that Scorpio will support the headsets, but that side of things feels like something of a distraction. There's no suggestion that Xbox One (S) will ever support a VR headset, so when Scorpio arrives it'll be building up an installed base of VR-ready consoles from zero. I'm not convinced that's a terribly interesting proposition, at least not for the first year or two. Of course, an extra platform capable of running a standardised headset design that also works with PCs is a good thing; but unless Scorpio ships with a headset as standard (something I think Microsoft will quite rightly recoil from, given the mess they made by shipping Kinect 2 as standard with Xbox One), it's unlikely to make a big impact on the state of the VR sector as a whole. Microsoft's headsets, certainly, will live and die by their popularity as a PC accessory, not by Scorpio's hand.
It's worth observing, of course, that Microsoft's effort at VR exists, for now, simply as a partnership with some manufacturers and a statement of intent. Sony's, meanwhile, is in stores (well, okay, there are stickers saying 'Out of Stock' on its displays in stores, if we're being accurate) and in consumers' hands. The enormous head-start PSVR enjoys over its most promising consumer rival cannot be underestimated; for the next 12 months, at least, Sony essentially has a clear run at this nascent market. It may be that that's not good for anything other than building up a devoted niche audience; it may be that VR simply isn't ready for its moment in the sun until widespread PC support and a range of headsets conforming to a common standard appears. Nobody knows the timeline for VR adoption, let alone what its likely market ceiling will be. For now, though, there's only one real player in the consumer VR market - and Sony, too, isn't half bad at polishing existing technology to an impressive shine, as the high quality feel of the PSVR hardware proves.
In a sense, Microsoft's quiet bombshell marks the real beginning of the consumer VR race. Sony's got a major head start and a great product; its task now is to put as much water between itself and Microsoft before the arrival of the Windows 10 headsets as possible. It's an odd kind of race, though, as it's one in which neither party really knows what the prize on offer will turn out to be; but whatever the fortunes of consumer VR in the near term, the technological development that will result from this competition will underwrite much of the future of how we interact with the devices, information, networks and entertainment around us.