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Microsoft’s headsets aim to lower the barrier of entry for mixed reality

Starting at $299

Affordable mixed reality headsets, devices that can deliver anything from a virtual reality game to an augmented view of your living room, are a major reason behind Microsoft's investment in HoloLens, said Alex Kipman, who heads up the project at Microsoft.

Starting next year, Windows 10-powered devices from an array of third-party manufacturers will begin hitting retailers for as little as $299 and, just as importantly, you won't need a powerful computer to use them.

Two problems

Kipman says that while there is a lot of "amazing innovation" happening on the PC around virtual reality, the technology still has two major problems.

"The stuff is super expensive," Kipman told Polygon after a Microsoft presentation on the tech this week. "You need a $1,500 PC to get started and then something like a $500 Oculus device."

(Ed’s note: In April we priced out systems that cost between $990 and $2520, saying that at the time a $1,500 system was probably the sweet spot. Since then, the new Nvidia cards have lowered those costs.)

The second problem, he said, is that virtual reality is very constraining.

"It doesn't bring the humans and objects into the environment," he said, noting that virtual reality typically obscures a person's real-world setting. This decreases immersion, he argues, and brings with it the danger of tripping or thwacking hazards while in the virtual world.

The HTC Vive — which requires two base stations to be mounted in opposite corners of a room, so the headset can track a person's movements — does offer a chaperone system, displaying transparent walls in the experiences you are playing as you approach the threshold of your safe area.

"You have HTC creating things like chaperone to make sure you don't hurt yourself," Kipman said. "So you end up putting holes in your wall for a $800 product so you can see a cube. And you still can't see the people in the room."

"coming to devices of all shapes and sizes"

Microsoft's Windows 10, and its support of the Windows Holographic backend, is a push to try and solve both of those problems, Kipman said. And not just for Microsoft, but for everyone interested in using the technology.

At Computex back in June, Kipman announced that Windows Holographic support was "coming to devices of all shapes and sizes." More importantly, the company announced an invitation to third-party hardware creators to build mixed-reality headsets powered by Windows Holographic and Windows 10.

During a Microsoft event in New York City this week, the full impact of that invitation became obvious. The company announced that HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer and Asus would all be shipping VR headsets capable of mixed reality next year. And that the price would start at $299.

Kipman said that the demonstration of that technology, which showed a person using a headset to visit a customized virtual room in his house and watch a show on a television the size of a wall, used a working prototype headset.

"The device we put on stage is a working device," he said. "We announced this partnership at Computex and invited people in our ecosystem to participate. What you saw today was the result of the last six months."

He said that the top five original equipment manufacturers (HP, Dell, Acer, Asus and Lenovo), are all fully behind this vision.

This initial group of devices were co-engineered with Microsoft using the technology and software created to power the HoloLens, he added.

He declined to say what some of the specs are for the devices like field of view and resolution, but said those details will be announced at the WinHEC events in December. He did have some details he could share though.

This first wave of devices will be opaque, so you can't see through them; will have a "high field of view"; will need to be connected to a computer by a long wire; and will feature both six degrees of freedom and inside-out tracking.

Six degrees of freedom means that the devices can track movement in every direction so a person can move right, left, up, down, forward, backward and any combination of those. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive support this through external sensors.

Inside-out tracking, however, is something that only Microsoft seems to have fully cracked and built into a working device: the HoloLens. The technology uses cameras built into a headset to track a user's movements without the need for any cameras mounted on walls or in front of desks.

Earlier this month, Oculus showed off a device codenamed Santa Cruz that uses the technology, but didn't discuss timing for a release.

Santa Cruz

Kipman pointed out that Microsoft has been shipping the HoloLens, which has inside-out technology built into it, for months. That same technology, he said, is being used in these new, affordable third-party headsets.

"It allows you to freely move through space safely," he said. "This is the first created for the real world.

"This is the thing that people are saying is the future. But it's something we are shipping with the Windows 10 Creators Update" this coming spring.

"Nobody in the world has this. This is HoloLens technology."

The work on the HoloLens, specifically being able to untether it, led to a lot of innovation, Kipman said. Through software and hardware design, the team was able to solve a lot of future potential issues like battery life and computing power requirements.

"We've lowered the specs you need for a PC from a $1,500 system to a $500 one," he said. "So now what used to cost you $2,000 [including the headset and PC], now you can get into for $800 and it's the most powerful, most immersive experience."

Different headsets, different specs

A key difference between the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and the Windows Holographic-powered devices is that Microsoft's efforts are likely to lead to an array of devices that don't all offer access to the same experiences.

With an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive, you know when you buy the headset that the only thing that limits your access to programs will be the computer you're using. But it sounds like the Windows devices won't all offer the same experiences, no matter the computer they are attached to.

"Just like gaming and gaming on a PC, there is a difference if you want to play Halo or you want to play solitaire," he said. "The entry to play anything was a $1,500 PC; that's what we lowered."

The first of these third-party headsets will hit when the Windows 10 Creators Update hits this spring, with the rest of that first wave coming throughout the year. And it sounds like they will vary in what they deliver, something we'll find out more about in December.

minecraft hololens

While this could further fracture the market for headsets, Kipman believes it’s something that will ultimately provide consumers with an easy way to get into the technology and a great chance to get access to exactly what they want from their experiences. Kipman sees a future where there are an array of devices, each offering different levels of experience. Currently, he said, the self-contained HoloLens sits at the top of that list, but he sees what it offers becoming the norm over time and eventually being surpassed in the marketplace that Microsoft is working to create.

"HoloLens remains the highest watermark by a margin, it's still the first and only self-contained holographic computer," Kipman said. "But over time all devices will start looking more and more like HoloLens."

The possibility that this could cause consumer confusion is something that the company is continuing to work on. Something Microsoft was already aware of with existing computer games and the need for minimum and suggested specs for games and other software.

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Ultimately, Kipman said, he believes this approach will deliver the widest breadth of experiences for consumers to choose from and give the ability for creators to push the envelope as far as they want.

"We want a world where you can have both Angry Birds and Halo," he said. "You want that sort of flexibility in the ecosystem."

He added that creating something like the HoloLens helps a company like Microsoft to urge others to compete.

"I'm not confused. Microsoft is not confused," he said. "The role of having first-party products is not to create and lead in new categories and new mediums, it's to create and embrace a healthy ecosystem of partners to collaborate with."

Mixed Reality

It's worth noting that these aren't virtual reality headsets, they're mixed reality headsets. What mixed reality means is still up for debate in some corners of the internet, but Kipman is clear on what it means to him. It has to include six degrees of freedom and inside-out tracking for a start.

"Gear VR and [Google] Daydream both have three degrees of freedom," he said. "The world moves with you when you move. They offer some amazing immersive experiences, but mixed reality they are not."


He said both Oculus Rift and the PlayStation VR headsets have six degrees of freedom and a limited form of tracking. HTC Vive has room-scale tracking and six degrees of freedom, but you have to stay within the confines of that one room.

"Imagine that same experience but in any room in your house," he said. "Mixed reality means that the experience must acknowledge that there are humans and objects in the room and humans and objects must exist in that environment. If you move, the world does not move with you."

Put another way, Kipman believes that mixed reality headsets provide an experience that, even when inhabiting an entirely new reality, still take into account the real world in which you exist. It knows you're about to walk into a wall, a dog, a couch, and it can show you that without removing you from the experience.

Project Scorpio Microsoft

I asked Kipman if existing games created for the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift would work on these new devices. He said they wouldn't, but that getting them to work wouldn't be that hard.

"Ultimately it's porting work to and from other VR software development kits to Windows Holographic," he said. "The work should be minimal."

The fact that there are so many different backends tied to the different VR headsets is a problem that Microsoft hopes to fix in a very Microsoft way.

"Unfortunately, super unfortunately, at this point we have a divergence of SDK," Kipman said. "Windows has one. Vive has its own. Oculus has its own. Daydream has its own.

"In creating a new medium we need to be in the business of ecosystem convergence. We need to democratize the process by creating a single development platform, one that is friction-free for customers."

In Microsoft's and Kipman's view, that single platform is Windows 10, which has Windows Holographic baked in. The operating system is already moving in that direction with a push for Universal Windows Programs, software that can easily run across any hardware using the operating system, be it a laptop, desktop, tablet or gaming console.

"At E3 this year we said that Scorpio is VR ready, that's because it's that same Windows platform, it has the same Windows Holographic bits," Kipman said. "Our vision for the longest time has been one operating system with a single universal store, with a single universal development platform."