Microsoft needs to clarify Windows Mixed Reality's purpose if it's going to succeed

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been toying with the new Mixed Reality headsets from HP and Acer. For context, both headsets are "developer editions," meaning they're not finalized hardware for consumers, nor is the underlying Windows Mixed Reality platform (even on Windows Insider builds) near finished.

Nonetheless, I have some impressions and thoughts about virtual reality (VR) and specifically Windows Mixed Reality that I want to share.

A reason to exist

Perhaps the toughest part about any innovative technology is seeing the immediate value for everyday life. Sometimes it's obvious (pedometers for counting steps), other times less so (trends in full-blown smartwatches or smart kitchen appliances).

Microsoft's Mixed Reality – which spans everything from HoloLens (more physical, less digital) to virtual reality (all digital, almost no physical) is one of those technologies that is in the very early stages of development. There are also the tethered (very powerful hardware) versus non-tethered (weaker hardware) experiences that vary significantly.

The goal, of course, is to make all such distinctions moot. Someday, you will have just a pair of glasses that switch between visible and occluded experiences but is still able to run serious software without being linked to a PC. We're far from that reality, but there is rapid progress being made.

Strapping on a head-mounted display (HMD) to do any task versus just looking at a 2D computer screen is not my favorite mode of interaction. The headsets are not heavy, but not light either, and it feels like a process to engage. Do I see myself waking up in the morning and putting on an HMD to start my day versus glancing at my smartphone? Definitely not. Yet, that is exactly what's needed for this field to take off.

The concepts behind Mixed Reality are ahead of where the hardware is today. That's not an insurmountable issue, and in fact, I expect aggressive investment and advancement in wearable display technology over the next decade.

There's something to VR and mixed reality, we just don't know what it is yet or how it can improve our daily experiences. Sure, it's "cool," but it needs to be more than that. Harking back to 2006, smartphones had a ton of potential, but they did very little. Without things like GPS, 4G networks, all-day battery life, and good cameras, smartphones were just theoretically ground breaking. Most consumers did not see the value of checking email on the go.

I think the same needs to happen for Windows Mixed Reality. Microsoft needs to do something that is truly groundbreaking, useful, and convenient. We haven't seen that yet. Right now, playing with some Windows apps in a virtual space or playing some video games is not very disruptive.

From nowhere to somewhere

The biggest hurdle Microsoft will face this holiday season with Mixed Reality is purpose. Microsoft is rightly taking a hands-off approach, giving developers the hardware and software to go out and create the future of Windows Mixed Reality so that the platform natural evolves. The tough part will be the journey to get there.

Some of these pain-points will be alleviated by having big titles that merge the familiar with the new to ease people into it. Another will be the lower entry point for investment, with Windows Mixed Reality headsets being a few hundred dollars less than the popular HTC Vive or Oculus Rift – not to mention the much simpler setup (around 10 minutes for Mixed Reality).

But to be more than a novelty, at some point Windows Mixed Reality will have to get a killer experience. I don't think that will come from just having some VR-type games, but perhaps the idea of a virtual Windows 10 akin to the "Cliffs room" experience today could get us there.

I think the other breakthrough that is desperately needed will be light, portable HMDs. Google Glass, despite all its flaws, had the basic concept down as to what a wearable computer should look like. The problem for Google was the creepy camera and recording feature, which should have never been there or – at the very least – buried in the feature list.

Putting the privacy issue aside, the idea of a HoloLens that is analogous to wearing sunglasses is very enticing. The idea of augmenting reality with the digital to feed information, identify objects, calculate distances, cloud and local-based artificial intelligence, the ability to instantly recall information, and more are compelling concepts. But it is going to take many iterations to achieve that experience.

I'm not sure how Microsoft plans to advertise, market, or position Windows Mixed Reality later this year, but it will be crucial. Perhaps the biggest blunder the company could make is overselling it. Luckily, so far, Microsoft seems to be doing the opposite with a very cautious approach.

With a low price point, the ability to run all Universal Windows Apps (UWA), multiple manufacturing partners (including Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Asus) I think Microsoft has the right ingredients to make something happen with Mixed Reality. But it will need the right leadership and message to make it the next big thing.

What do you think will be the catalyst that takes mixed reality mainstream? What's the missing piece of the puzzle? Let us know in comments.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • I agree with this article and thanks for writing it.  I recently picked up a samsung vr for my s8+ and I really like it.  But the easiest justification currently is being able to move around with it.  With my Samsung VR I may run into a wall my kids or fall downstairs.  But being a Windows fan and seeing the way things go I hope they position this accordingly and succeed.  
  • I just don't see it being relevant in the consumer space for years, if not decades. These devices seem like a step backward in terms of the quality of experience that's available with modern hardware (phones, tablets, laptops, etc.) Unless & until they can surpass the current experience available with existing technologies, it's just not going to catch on.  Further, if VR headsets are aggressively marketed & consumers find them lackluster, companies run the risk of poisoning the consumer base against further iterations of the technology (I'll never use an iPod/iPhone because of how awful iTunes software was back in the day when I used an iPod, maybe the software is better nowadays, but I have many other otions available & don't want to go near a product that inspired such rage in the past). Really amazing things could be possible with AR/VR in terms of engineering, medicine, logistics, architecture, design, etc. but it's gunna be a long time before this stuff takes off in the consumer space.
  • Totally agree!
  • At the moment the biggest consumer application of VR is gaming which I think is at least being desired to have. More and more games are adopting VR experience, especially for cockpit-based games like flight arcades or other simulation games. It won't be a total mainstream, but if you played games that benefit the VR the most, this hardware became desirable. The only big factor at the moment is the cost and still growing content, but its getting there. Outside of gaming that were the problem lies for consumers, which Microsoft Mixed Reality platform is at since they seem not focusing too much on its gaming applications, but it's trying to be like multi-purpose everyday computing. People or at least most users don't need the dedicated VR experience to browse the web or typing a document. Though there is a potential for productivity, we have yet to see its practicality as there seems no solutions available at the moment that address such that. For what I can see, having these VR headsets outside gaming will have very limited use-cases. Things like you want to view places using Street View (virtual tourism) in VR, and watching VR/360 videos (which is still not alot of content atm). Very limited that having this is rather a novelty if you don't intend to use it for gaming or simulations. If Microsoft seriously wants this to be for consumers, they need to show and develop apps and ecosystem around this soon as possible. Not just this virtual home like playing SIMS, which is pointless and gimmicky. Microsoft needs to market this for gaming and have existing VR hardware like Vive and Oculus Rift works with Windows Mixed Reality platform.
  • Sure gaming is one avenue, but in a few months I'll have a true(-ish) 4k gaming console on a 75inch 4k televison, those goggles would have to be pretty damn impressive to make me drop yet another few hundred dollars...
  • Well the VR headset totally gives difference experience. It is meant for full immersion that looking at flat panel display don't provide. Thing is, VR isn't for everybody especially the type of games you intend to play with. But gaming is the really obvious avenue for consumer VR. There are other applications too, but rather bit more niche and limited at the moment. We just don't have much content which is a problem to justify it. Which is why Microsoft pushing cheaper VR with lower-spec requirements is a good start. They just have to give clear marketing for consumers for to aim for larger adoption. 
  • Meanwhile apple will make it relevant the moment they release their iphone 8.   and then,  the fanboys here will whine that apple is garbage because MS released hololens first....blah blah blah....
  • too sad its starting to look like kinect all over again, yeah yeah so much potential bla bla, if the creator himself wont show the way, there's little chance of others doing anything worthy with it again, look at Kinect, it took YEARS to even work as a simple webcam, instead they could've made w10 to work natively with it as an alternative to mouse-keyboard and add support for main basic apps like maps and mail etc, only then you can hand things off to developers, but no, they just make some hardware and half assed drivers and expect everyone to go crazy over it and actually make something of it, that's why they keep failing, and HoloLens and all this MR thing doesnt seem too different from that approach
  • I think the basic take away from this article is that Microsoft don't know how to market this technology in its current form, doesn't sell it to consumers because the hardware is evolving rapidly and doesn't exactly know what it is for. It is currently unwieldy and inconvenient to use and it makes you look dorky. I think we know how this all goes down folks... it won't be successful until someone like Apple picks it up in 5-10 years time once the kinks are ironed out assuming something better hasn't technologically lapped it like holographic displays for example. It will probably have applications in business assuming the hardware improves to a certain point where it won't immediately be outdated when you buy it and the Dev kit is joined up. 
  • If Apple can't respond, catch up and be a player in this market, they won't be around in 5 years.
  • Apple already responded. They will have hundreds of millions of AR devices on their AR platform in just a couple months. Apps will come really fast and they will be ready if/when Apple launches a headset. This market is probably already over for Microsoft. Their lack of users will make any new market tough for them to enter.
  • " like Apple picks it up in 5-10 years time " Apple is going to have something like 100 million+ customers, with hardware in their hands, for their ARKit in roughly 30 days from now. Even with a killer app I don't see multi-hundred dollar headsets selling all that fast.
  • I am betting the farm that apple releases "apple glasses" within the next 6-8 months.  They will work just like the apple watch with connecting to your iphone to do the heavy lifting.  They will be lightweight, sleek and not look like a star trek character using them. They will be something you can wear outside,  and not look like a total ****** with them on.  MS,  Ball dropped AGAIN!
  • You. I like you.
  • I just speak the truth reomw!
  • Apple or others will always deliver better. Microshit will fail again and again until they find a proper CEO, not this money costs obsessed one.
  • Yup, good article. I'd like to know what MS thinks about this, in particular how they view their competition.
  • Nadella does not know that competition existed i don't think....He's in a little bubble of his money and bonuses from cloud.   Don't care about the rest.
  • Good article. Reminds me of the 1st windows with touch... 1st gen to a game changer... just not today (2017)
  • What Microsoft needs to do is create the greatest experience possible. An experience that doesn't require "clarifying". If Microsoft needs to "clarify" it then it is already a failure.
  • My biggest concern is that Microsoft limits this device to run UWP apps only, and prohibit any desktop apps to use it. That means there's no current VR apps, and anything already built on Windows desktop need to rewrite. From the history of Windows (8~10) and Windows Mobile, we know devs don't want to do it, make it only be useful in very limited scenarios within an already very tiny market. If it can allow non UWP apps, or even get support from SteamVR, it could totally replaces Oculus Rift and HTC Hive, with a lot more and advanced technology (i.e., additional UWP app supports, no external sensor required, higher resolution, more comfortable to wire, etc). Btw, I can totally see Microsoft want to create new area other than current VR, but the initial target customers are all tech fans who may already choose current VR, and they are very unlikely to support another VR/MR device unless it can generally replace their current one, considering the effects that need to take for VR setup.
  • MS is continuing to be a bunch of idiots thinking they can force something on users or devs! Well they can't!
  • Seriously, if you can't see the purpose in this then it is not for you.  it is like those who think the surface pen is a gimmick.  Just because you have done computing one way for years it does not mean it is the best way.  The Desk computer has hardly changed in 30 years, it just got faster and lost a bit of weight, now it is time to re think computing
  • then start thinking
  • What will drive Mixed reality?  That's easy - the same thing that drove the camera, polaroid, VCR, Camcorder, Internet, online payment and social media.  Porn.
  • Totally agree. The biggest point, for me, is the lack of a VR presence on the XB1X. I fully expected that Forza would be a VR-enabled title for launch. Without it, I went from definitely wanting an XB1X and FM7 to not caring much for either at the time. Microsoft needs to support it with software, in a way they failed to do with mobile.
  • The lack of serious push of VR to Xbox One X is already disappointing. Since there is already a demand and hype around VR gaming, especially how to cost prohibitive VR gaming on PC's at the moment. Pushing it with Xbox One X promotes the Windows Mixed Reality platform, makes Xbox One X more worthy than just 4K gaming and helps accelerate VR and mixed reality to the masses mindshare.  
  • Are you aware that there is no demand for VR as of now? Sony sold 1 mil but that's nearly all, Oculus and Vive don't publish data because it is that bad, but analyst estimate that in just half million. Even as of today Windows Phone easily tops VR when numbers are in the question.
  • The problem with both Oculus and Vive is that they are cost prohibitive and there are not enough contents to justify them. Not to mention that they have their own ecosystem and exclusivity that hinders the adoption. Sony PS4 doesn't have alot of VR contents, which don't justify the added cost and hassle of having it. PC on the other hand at least there are heaps already, the problem is really there is two competing VR platform standard. As my other comment earlier, VR gaming isn't going to be for everybody and not going to be mainstream anytime soon, but somebody has to push it. Microsoft is the one can since they are the only one can standardize the VR gaming platform with Windows Mixed Reality. They own Windows, which is the primary and best PC gaming platform at the moment. There is a desire for VR gaming, even the current sales isn't going to be that high as aforementioned factors. With Xbox One X, it can help to push the VR gaming a bit which will help the overall Windows Mixed Reality platform in the long-term. The more mindshare, the more developers take investment on developing VR apps and games to the platform, that will make way for future AR field. My point is, Microsoft needs to push VR gaming for consumers since this is really the only most obvious market at the moment. They just have to make Windows Mixed Reality as the VR platform for Windows. It needs to make Vive and Oculus compatible with it (if they can negotiate for both of the parties benefit). That at least IMO the clear approach of consumer VR. In terms of productivity, well this is Microsoft forte and they have to also push it, all while trying to push VR gaming to gain more mindshare and developer support.
  • I've used Hololens and seen it used by manufacturing companies, architects, and companies doing physics simulations. However, it was always relegated to very niche rolls for problems that were very specific to that one company demosntrating it. None of these applications would have been usefully rolled out to a wider audience. This approach is far too limited. MS needs to shoulder the costs of making the first big-hit mass-market applications themselves. So far they've failed to do that. If Apple does do that with ARKit, then I'd also say it's already over for MS.
  • I saw the title of this article and the first thing I thought was "Typical click bait from Win Central".   The same title format is used over and over "Why Microsoft needs to do ......"  and the comments on the article always go along the same lines. I agree that there are some good points in the article, but really it could easily be "Microsoft needs to clarify Windows 10 purpose if it's going to succeed"  or " Microsoft needs to clarify it's mobile purpose if it's going to succeed".   There has been little new published on this site for sometime.  It is all rehash from older articles and as such garners the same comments over and over. I love a good editorial or a good review.  It gives me something to read on public transport rides. How about looking for something NEW that Microsoft is doing rather than rehashing the older stuff that has no real new information.       
  • but hey Xbox news every day...
  • I think it needs to be interactive so that you can join other people in the same room. For example, watching movies, live TV, or sports. It would be great to be able to sync them up so both people get the same view so they can share the experience together. Otherwise you're just isolated in a virtual world.
  • I think microsoft are really wasting their time and money on these mixed reality headsets, manufacturers have been trying to sell these since the days of the Amiga computer, ok I know they've improved immensely over the years, but the use of them is seriously restricted, there's problems such as restricted movement in the home, the cost,  they're clumsy and no good when you're visiting friends cannot share the experience at the same time. Good for clubs and the arcades but thats all ! So come on Microsoft see the reality in this, you'd be far better investing in standalone projected holographic systems ,that everybody can share,  instead of flogging this dead horse !    
  • Holy crap! I thought this is going to be another bs article by Jason Ward.. Good lord its Daniel!
  • Finally!  Someone writing about trying to figure out the Business Case for some of the Massively Screwed-up dys-Functional Team's (MSFT) initiatives. The same goes for their foray into "mobile" after the umpteenth reset/retrenchment. Please tell Jason Ward that I've been asking for someone to come up with a business case for this new initiative and why they think they can move people off "plain old smartphones".
  • Some friends are working on a new UWP pet game for Mixed Reality you can find it here: Microsoft is running a game development challenge which includes mixed reality in the award categories and final submission date is on December 31st 2017. That is a good incentive for people to develop applications for the platform during its launch window.  To me mixed reality is the ability to have multiple screens and experiences together in one location. It means intelligent new games and virtual experiences not possible until recently. Apart from the low cost of the OEM devices, what really makes a huge difference compared to the current VR offerings is that these new headsets can work with even previous generation devices. So someone doesn't need to invest over $1000 dollars to participate in this next generation of visual computing. Other than games, there are tons of things that can improved with this technology.  i.e. booking hotels, checking out bars and restaurants, visiting museums, participating in conferences and even funny moments with virtual friends and their avatars on various social platforms. Even education. remote or otherwise. i.e. it would allow you to fiddle with substanges and machinery otherwise not possible before.  
  • you are wasting your one cares about Microshit. Apple ARKit is 1000 times more cool and fun, Samsung's VR is better etc, and in just a few weeks, after IOS11 is launched, we will already have dev support and apps for this. so not thanks, UWP is a failure! and so is Microsoon. Everybody else is having better stuff than MS, always!
  • The problem here has two parts: 1. Microsoft. They always under deliver, poor quality, lack of commitment and lying! 2. Devs won't give a damn about anything MS comes up with as usual because let's be serious, who on earth can trust Microshit anymore?