Microsoft announces cheap headsets, now what?

Yesterday at a Microsoft event, lots of AR/VR announcements have been made: for example, the development of the new version of Paint that will be 3D and holographic, or the integration of 3D objects inside web pages, so that they can be dragged inside your HoloLens room. Lots of cool stuff.

One announcement has surprised and puzzled all of us VR enthusiasts: Microsoft has announced $299 high-quality VR headsets from its partners. Microsoft claims that it has partnered with HP, Lenovo and others to produce a new revolutionary kind of headset, that has inside-out positional tracking out of the box and that is very cheap. Even more, they mocked all the competitors, like Vive and Oculus, definining them “other less immersive accessories that today cost over $500”.

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The concept of the new Windows 10 headsets. Do you like them?

I think that it has been a bold move by Microsoft. And like all bold moves, it has been a great marketing move. Since yesterday, everyone (included me) in the VR ecosystem is talking about this announcement, so they had the press coverage they wanted to obtain, so they had all the desired visibility.

But, there is a big but. They made a huge promise to us VR communities… and promises have to be kept (No Man’s sky teaches).

First of all they promised a new fantasmagoric inside-out positional tracking technology. What it can be? Inside-out means that it does not need an external camera or sensor (like Oculus or Vive do), but that the headset performs all the tracking by itself. My only bet would be something like a set of cameras that perform environment scanning, as Hololens already does very well. Since they have this great technology, they could exploit it in VR. But this technology is not cheap and I couldn’t see any camera on the prototype they showed at the event.

And yes, the price, that’s the other crucial point: to have great technology, you have to spend lots of money. Oculus tried to keep prices of VR devices low (and managed to do this until DK2), but in the end they had to surrender to the fact that to make great VR you have to make a lot of R&D, you have to produce a lot of custom elements and so the final price of the product raises a lot. For $299 you can’t make that much. With $299 you can make a decent headset: think about Playstation VR: their headset is good enough to be used with Playstation, but its worse than the other two competitors (Oculus and Vive). And anyway, to play with it, you have to spend $399 (and also buy the PS Eye camera and the PS move controllers).

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Virtual Reality for Everyone… will it be true? (Image from vrandfun.com)

Because this is the true problem: they have not promised a good-enough headset for a reasonable price: they have announced a disruptive device for half of the price of their competitors. And there’s more: they’ve defined great products like Oculus and Vive “other less immersive accessories”. That’s not a good way to enter in a market, considering that both Oculus and Vive products work very well and have great talented people working to make them even better (think about John Carmack for instance). And if you remember well, John Carmack tried to work with inside-out tracking with GearVR. Results are that Oculus has now a Santa-Cruz prototype, but it works mapping the environment (and has been publicly showcased).

Reaction of communities have been really skeptical. The fact that there is no public demo for this super-innovative tech and that the demo they showcased on the stage is pure fluff (come on, how do they even think that we can trust that demo?), means that this technology is not ready, so they’re just betting on something that is currently under development. In fact they haven’t even realeased the specs of this new marvelous devices (we don’t even know if they’re standalone or not… but the cable inside the images suggests they will be tethered), neither the release date. What an audacious move. Reminds me of Magic Leap 🙂

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The fantastic demo they’ve made: the avatar was super-fake and reacted 3 seconds after the user’s movements. Is their headset going at 0.3FPS? 😀 (Image from The Verge)

Ah and let’s think about the controllers for a moment: this new inside-out technology how does handle immersive VR controllers? There is a new mesmerizing technologies for them too? Or I have to perform room scale with a keyboard in my hands?

The only possibilities for this promises to be true are:

  • Developing Hololens, Microsoft has discovered a super-innovative technology that can be used for the new headset. The problem with this is that HoloLens costs $3000 and if that solution would have been so cheap, HoloLens would have costed much less (even if HoloLens is completely standalone, so it is a different scenario. Maybe they use part of the tech of Hololens, but with the power of the connected PC, that must be VR-ready);
  • Microsoft wants to sell under-priced hardware to conquer the whole market. They could just earn money selling apps on Microsoft Store, on PCs and on the new VR-ready Xbox Scorpio. But this would be a huge bet on VR, don’t know if Ms wants to do this.

My best bet is that Microsoft is trying to make tethered VR headsets that are inferior in quality to Oculus and Vive but that are more user friendly (only one-two cables to connect) and that cost less. They will have positional tracking through cameras on the device but will lack appropriate VR controllers. They will be a great answer to PSVR on the console market. Ah, and $299 will be the price of only one model, the most basic one. Will I be right? We will see.

In the meantime, let the VR war begin…

(Header image from The Verge)

 

Skarredghost

AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...

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