Is Microsoft moving Windows Mixed Reality VR/AR towards consumers?

HP Reverb WMR
HP Reverb WMR (Image credit: Windows Central)

Recently, Bill Stillwell of Xbox fame left the gaming division to join Windows Mixed Reality, to work on "world-class consumer AR/VR experiences in the Microsoft ecosystem." Interesting.

For a couple of years, Microsoft couldn't resist demonstrating its unprecedented HoloLens augmented reality tech at every single event, it felt like, using Minecraft and other random Xbox properties to showcase the potential therein. Fast forward five years to 2020 and HoloLens remains firmly in the realm of big business and the military, powering next-generation training, awareness, and productivity solutions.

The only "games" on HoloLens remain more akin to small home projects and tech demos. Meanwhile, Microsoft's more consumer-friendly Windows Mixed Reality headsets, affordably priced by comparison, have less than half a dozen decent games to choose from on the Microsoft Store, which is truly abysmal. Thankfully they are compatible with SteamVR, but the experience isn't exactly what I'd call seamless.

Despite steadily trending upwards, VR hasn't exactly taken the world by storm in the consumer space, but could that change in the future? And is Microsoft running the risk of being left behind again? Let's explore.

State of VR

Source: Bloomberg via Wikipedia (Image credit: Source: Bloomberg via Wikipedia)

Some estimates put the video game industry value anywhere between $120 to $150 billion, with VR solutions making up around $6 billion of the overall pot in 2019.

There's little information about how much games like Half-Life: Alyx might impact the landscape for VR, which launched just a few weeks ago as of writing. It almost immediately garnered tens of thousands of players on Steam and is more than likely in the running for game of the year 2020 awards.

Source: Windows CentralHalf-Life: Alyx is arguably the best VR game to date. (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

For context, video game consoles make up around $15 billion in the same report, with PC gaming on $30 billion and mobile titles on a whopping $64 billion. While VR is small right now, it seems to be growing relatively nicely according to analyses from Bloomberg, detailed in the graph above. VR is at least growing at a comparable rate to the early days of mobile and other platforms and is no doubt set to grow ever further.

Even though the industry isn't massive right now, we're clearly seeing an industry trending upwards year over year, despite its cost-prohibitive nature and relative inaccessibility.

Could Microsoft change its attitude towards consumer VR?

Source: MicrosoftWe've heard Microsoft Flight Simulator may come to VR. (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Bill Stillwell is known for running the Xbox backward compatibility program among Xbox fans, leading to the procurement of hundreds of high-quality Xbox 360 titles from yesteryear from third-party developers. Stillwell also led similar efforts over at Project Cloud, making me wonder if perhaps his jump to AR/VR could have something to do with bringing game developers to the platform.

Xbox Game Pass has been a powerful vehicle for bringing game developers to the Microsoft Store.

Indeed, Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass has been a powerful vehicle for bringing game developers to the Microsoft Store for PC games, which is shockingly becoming a fairly respectable library of quality PC titles as of late. Not to oversimplify things, but it stands to reason that a feature like Xbox Game Pass for PC could also help bulk up the Microsoft Store for VR titles too, which right now only has some older (albeit brilliant) titles like Arizona Sunshine and Superhot VR. If Xbox Game Pass PC subscribers have access to those games as a result of their subscription, it might increase interest in picking up an associated Windows Mixed Reality headset as well.

To that end, we've also heard that the impressive-looking upcoming flight sim Microsoft Flight Simulator may be in development for virtual reality as well. It makes sense, given that it's a sit-down experience designed for immersion above all else. Flight simulation games like Elite Dangerous were pioneers in the VR space, and it stands to reason that Flight Simulator could be among the first of Microsoft's homegrown VR efforts.

Should they dive in before it's too late?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

In recent years, I've had this (admittedly unsubstantiated) idea that Microsoft has become almost afraid of taking risks in consumer tech, regressively sticking to safer paradigms. Burned by Kinect, Microsoft Band, Windows 10 Mobile, Cortana devices, and other products, it feels like Microsoft is taking a "softly, gently" approach to areas of consumer tech that it hasn't historically had involvement in.

Microsoft still has a chance to get involved in consumer VR.

Microsoft has repeatedly affirmed that its efforts in VR remain firmly on PC for the time being, where the vast majority of the users are. Quality VR headsets are expensive, and to get the most out of them, you need a comparable gaming rig to match. Cheaper solutions like some of the lower-end Windows Mixed Reality headsets are accessible, but the experience is far beneath the more premium solutions out there. You have to wear these things after all, and cheap headsets aren't only uncomfortable, they can induce motion sickness more easily.

I have mixed feelings about VR, given that it makes me feel sick, but a lot of these sorts of issues are surely solvable with improved tech. Few companies out there have the technical prowess, engineering talent, and investment capital to advance this technology. Microsoft is among those companies. The longer it waits, the more it hands consumer market share to shady companies like Facebook and its Oculus platform, while also giving PlayStation a significant differentiator in the console space with its PSVR tech.

Microsoft has this staggeringly impressive capacity to underestimate nascent tech that really should be within its purview, could Windows Mixed Reality become the next missed boat like Windows Phone? Microsoft still has a chance to get involved in consumer VR before it's too late.

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Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • For me no. I feel vr has had its day in terms of popular people. Look how many phones supported it and now when a new one comes out they never mentioned it. I think vr in gaming has its place but only a small one. Vr for me like AR is about business it adds more to them than home use. People think different but for me that's how I feel about it. It's like smart watches. Fitness trackers are more sort after than wahches but they still have a place.
  • I think the problem is VR as we know it is kind of disappointing when we're spoiled by imaginary Sci-Fi versions of the same. We were all hoping for stuff like Sword Art Online where people are fully and entirely immersed in VR, to the point that they can feel and move normally, but all we got was a somewhat less expensive version of those gimmicky arcade games that were out 20 years ago. If we're lucky, we can have sensors that let us move around the room...but that's it. VR as we know it can't really cross that magic immersion line yet. Is it neat? Sure. Is it interesting? Yes. Is it fun? It can be. Is it worth paying over $2k to play mini-games? Probably not.
  • In Sword Art Online it's not even VR as we know it. They don't stand or move their hands. They are kind of laying still or in a trance while using a brain interface. The Ready Player One movie does show something more similar to what real world VR is. They even use some kind of rig system to move and run in place. We have those right now, though they're expensive and cumbersome.
  • This article title is VR/AR is itself outdated... because Microsoft mixed reality is itself outdated.. Unity 2019 no longer use VR/AR.. That is how fast this space is moving now...
  • Unity still supports WMR and Hololens. Valve is developing the unity plugin for SteamVR and that will better for devs and consumers for sure.
  • All mixed reality industry at the bleeding edge including unity stop calling AR/VR.
  • Xbox isn't doing VR, but I believe Microsoft is HEAVILY invested in Mixed Reality. While gaming is a great use of VR I don't believe that's where the most advances are going to be made at first. I don't see VR being mainstream capable until the overall ecosystem matures. VR reminds me of video game industry in the seventies right now...
  • You have to have more vision and balls than Nadella if you want to make successful consumer products. WMR made quite a mark on a shoestring budget, imagine if they even threw even a little bit weight behind it.
  • I always find in fascinating when people want to chastise Nadella's decision making process. If most of you were in his shoes Microsoft would be bankrupt. Instead all he's done over the course of the past 10 plus years is re-establish their foothold in the market, that's both enterprise and consumer, and restore MSFT to relevancy. Just look at their stock. 2013 it was around $32. Before this pandemic started, it was around $180. I'd say his vision and balls for that matter are fine.
  • This is fairly flawed. Nearly ALL tech companies had a significant boost in stock value in 2013-2020. It is fairly easy to be a CEO in such a period comparing for example to 2008-2013. But much bigger problem is that you look at the stock price and talk about 'bankruptcy'. The stock price has nothing with the bankruptcy. At the point when Nadella took over Microsoft was already one of the most profitable companies in the world and its profits haven't exploded in 2013-2020, actually they were growing slower than at Ballmer's time which as said was in harder economy and some projects were held off to leave the boost for new CEO (like all Nadella had to do for Microsoft Office for Android and iOS was to press the button to launch them as CEO). Not to say that Nadella was a bad CEO, just I don't think there is anything impressive in what he done aside from being a good politician so that shareholders want Microsoft stock much much more though the profitability is roughly the same. It is a feature though that shouldn't be underestimated, just only based on this you can't say someone is brilliant.
  • He is doing it by playing it really safe and has Microsoft back to being a boring enterprise only company. Except Xbox which is doing well from having such a strong leader as Phil. Otherwise it would likely be spun off by now.
  • I would like to see it available as an option of an upcoming Xbox model. Multiplayer / user at the same time would be great.
  • Phil Spencer said Xbox won't have VR because fans aren't asking for it, and it's "isolating." Mixed messaging about this from Microsoft.
  • I'm not getting this article. The only VR experience I routinely have is WITH Microsoft's WMR platform. I exclusively play Elite Dangerous, which works beautifully on the Acer WMR headset. How much more "consumer" can you get?
  • When u stop using controllers but only your hands and it is totally wireless and yet the same price category as WMR... Then this is truly consumer.
  • So the Vive, the Index, any Oculus headset except the Quest when used without controllers, and basically every VR headset available is not "truly consumer".
  • In my opinion, using a WMR headset with SteamVR is pretty seamless. I put the headset on and it auto starts. When I drop into Cliff House there is an icon for steam vr I click and bam. I suppose we could get 1 less click by going straight to steam vr. Jez is right about the windows store offering. They are very slim pickings. I'd personally rather use steam anyways to have all my games in one place so I prefer steam. I do own a little over a dozen vr titles now on steam and they all work flawlessly with WMR.
  • So this is a tough one. This is an industry I am in, but on the Enterprise side. AR/VR is very near and dear to me and I think it has a huge growth potential. But from what I have seen with VR time and time again is a lot of people think of it as one and done. They play a game once and think it's neat in VR, but then don't pick it up again. Now obviously Beat Saber is an anomaly, but it just isn't enough. On the AR front Enterprise is investing heavily into this. But on the consumer side it is still being figured out. For example is someone going to want to play a game in AR or VR. More than likely they will pick VR. But there are applications outside of games. Whatever happens I hope these companies who make a push into consumer market really knock it out of the park.
  • There's few games for WMR in the store, but they're definitely more than "half a dozen". Also don't think playing SteamVR games is anything to complain about. You put on the headset, when it starts you click on the game shortcut , or look for it in your (VR) Start Menu, and you're set, the game launches without further intervention. How does this work in Oculus? It doesn't load a previous menu or environment, or bridging driver at all? I expect the Vive or Index to offer the most "seamless" experience, but to be fair they're built with Valve to work straight from SteamVR.
  • I was an early adopter of Windows Mixed Reality, and after all the games I wanted to play were exclusives of some other platform, or not supported on WMR headsets, I abandoned the platform. Why would I keep supporting it when Oculus has heavily been investing in expanding the platform's capabilities and creating its own experiences? The Oculus Quest is clearly an affordable way to enjoy VR that doesn't require tethering to a PC. And the experience is just great!
  • I consider myself rather up to date.. Was a strong supporter of hand tracking in hololens 2. After oculus quest came up with not just hand tracking like hololens 2, but a more ease to use, SDK... I stop looking back to WMR including hololens below $1500 better headsets are available soon this year..