Microsoft's Mixed Reality initiative is in some ways an undefined area of computing that is slowly coming into focus. Microsoft today is making some big waves with the immersive Windows 10 experience coming this holiday season including revisions to hardware requirements and some huge partnerships that will drive the gaming aspect to potentially millions of new users.
It should not be shocking that Microsoft is leveraging 343 Studios – the group behind Halo – but it is now official (even if still early). Moreover, Steam VR will also be a part of Windows Mixed Reality and Minecraft as well.
Democratizing virtual reality – A tale of two PC tiers
Arguably one of the biggest barriers to authentic, immersive virtual and mixed reality experiences is the price. There is a reason why something akin to Samsung VR exists – it's cheap. Microsoft is taking a similar approach to its mixed reality attempts by offering two tiers for PC requirements:
Windows Mixed Reality PCs: will consist of desktops and laptops with integrated graphics. When plugged into these devices, our immersive headsets will run at 60 frames per second.
Windows Mixed Reality Ultra PCs: will consist of desktops and laptops with discrete graphics. When plugged into these devices, our immersive headsets will run at 90 frames per second.
Currently, Windows Mixed Reality exists with the requirement of a high-end dedicated graphics card, but that all changes later this year. Soon, standard Ultrabook and low-end PCs (starting at $499) will be able to partake in the experience as well with just standard Intel HD graphics.
No more will virtual and mixed reality experiences be relegated to only those who can afford top-tier gaming PCs. Likewise, there is no clumsy setup with just two plugs – HDMI and USB 3.0 – being required versus wall mounted sensors. Microsoft is pushing the idea that its mixed and virtual reality solution is completely portable running on most laptops without sophisticated gear.
Pricing of head-mounted displays (HMDs) from Dell, HP, Acer, and Lenovo for Windows Mixed Reality start at just $299 with packages including the two new hand motion controllers starting at $399.
Greg Sullivan, Director at Microsoft, explained that Microsoft is interested in doing to virtual reality what it did with the personal computer. By leveraging its manufacturing partners, making it global and affordable, anyone who has a basic PC can get in on the experience. Indeed, Microsoft may have issues with hardware distribution in many countries, but its partners like Dell or Acer do not.
Steam VR, Minecraft, and Halo coming to Windows 10 Mixed Reality
Perhaps the biggest news being revealed today is Microsoft's partnership with Steam VR. Although the partnership is still early on Windows users will soon be able to download and play the same virtual reality games from Steam that's playable on HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
I already played a few such titles including:
- Space Pirate Trainer by I-Illusions.
- Superhot VR by SUPERHOT Team.
- Arizona Sunshine by Vertigo Games, Jaywalkers Interactive.
- Rec Room by Against Gravity.
Certainly, more games will be announced later this fall as well, but the "porting" to Windows Mixed Reality appears to require very little from developers.
Joe Ludwig of Valve remarked about the new partnership with Microsoft:
"The introduction of Windows Mixed Reality headsets is big step forward for VR. Working with Microsoft to include SteamVR compatibility with these devices is also a big step in growing VR as an open platform for developers and consumers. With a broad range of hardware options available from leading PC manufacturers, the Steam community will have more choice than ever to experience the amazing potential of VR."
Moreover, I was treated to Minecraft VR, which as the name implies is a completely immersive way to play the favorite world-build game owned by Microsoft. Users can opt to play Minecraft on a giant virtual screen or take the plunge by going full engagement into a virtual reality Minecraft world.
Minecraft VR is playable even on an Ultrabook PC with a dual-core processor at 60 frames-per seconds making it accessible to all groups of users.
Finally, Microsoft is bringing Halo – in some form – to Windows Mixed Reality. Alex Kipman, Microsoft's chief evangelist for the Windows Mixed Reality platform, noted that it is "working with 343 Industries to bring future Halo experiences into mixed reality. We are not providing specifics right now, but it is going to be a lot of fun to work with them."
Windows Mixed Reality starts this holiday season
As the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update starts to roll out companies like Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Acer should begin selling its HMDs and motion controllers with availability in retail stores, online, and worldwide.
Today's announcements are just the "first wave" according to Microsoft. Customers should expect even more games and immersive experiences like the new Microsoft HoloTour app to be revealed leading up the holiday season and beyond.
You can read more about Microsoft's Mixed Reality announcements on the Windows Blog.