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Microsoft says people don't want Xbox VR — but I definitely do

HP Reverb
HP Reverb (Image credit: Windows Central)

HP Reverb WMR

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

Recently, Xbox head Phil Spencer said in an interview that VR isn't a focus for Microsoft's gaming arm, noting that "customers aren't asking for it," and indeed, the data suggests that. Mat Piscatella of the industry analyst group NPD has data from U.S. consumers that suggests VR spending is a "rounding error of a rounding error" in terms of volume. But why?

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VR can be an incredible experience, but the barriers are numerous and in some ways, destructive. The tech just isn't there, but frustratingly, Microsoft is one of the few big companies that could potentially solve the issues. So, why don't they try?

Today's VR experience isn't great (or affordable)

Although there have been some significant leaps to try and solve some of the issues, VR remains this fractured thing that requires a fair bit of investment both in terms of research and money to get to grips with.

I have the cheapest of the cheap VR headsets, the original HP WMR headset, and the hardware isn't exactly amazing, although it was impressive for the price point at the time. Huge multiple cables are required to connect the thing up; wearing a bulky plastic thing on your face isn't exactly pleasant either. The strap around the back of your head can easily become uncomfortable over time, and it gets steamed up extremely easily, requiring broken sessions to keep it defogged. Not precisely the futuristic experience we were sold in The Matrix.

Of course, there are far better headsets available now, complete with wireless options and standalone configurations. It often still depends on how much you want to invest, though. Some require tracking beacons to be mounted and set-up wherever you want to play. Others require large amounts of floor space. And then you have Oculus VR, which is owned by Facebook, a company run by scumbags with questionable ethics when it comes to privacy.

And then, you simply have motion sickness to deal with, at least for some. While a lot of the games I enjoy on the HP WMR headset don't induce motion sickness and work well as sit-down experiences, such as Arizona Sunshine (opens in new tab) and Superhot VR (opens in new tab), some games I would love to experience are dizzying in all the wrong ways, like Minecraft VR. Whether this is the fault of the game's design or limitations of modern technology, I simply don't know. Either way, I'm pretty sure Microsoft would be among the few companies with the knowhow and cash to solve these barriers to entry.

Why won't Microsoft step up more?

Sandbox VR hardware

Source: Windows Central / Katie Aiani (Image credit: Source: Windows Central / Katie Aiani)

When Phil Spencer said Xbox customers aren't asking for VR, it certainly ruffled a few feathers on social media. There is a core of people who would at least like to see a VR option on Xbox, at least so that it can match Sony's investment on the PS4 side of things. I'm sure game developers building VR experiences would also like to see Xbox throw its hat in the ring too.

Obviously, Spencer didn't mean that nobody is asking for VR, but you need only look at how Microsoft has been investing in Xbox for an example of what the vast majority of customers have been asking for. People asked for more games and content, so Microsoft invested in several new studios. People asked for more powerful systems, and it's looking like Xbox's next-gen Scarlett consoles could be genuinely beastly. People asked for Microsoft to fix their gaming experiences on PC, so they brought Halo to Steam and split the gaming experience out of the god awful Microsoft Store into a separate app (which is actually good).

https://twitter.com/JezCorden/status/930958851029000192?s=20

Microsoft, like any platform, has to think about the future too. Attempting to build up a VR platform from scratch doesn't seem like a smart allocation of funds or expertise, considering the addressable audience on mobile devices via Project XCloud is far, far, far bigger, and already established.

It seems like more of a case of having "bigger fish to fry" than apathy towards VR. Microsoft has several other higher profile problems with Xbox to address right now, rather than running headlong into a "me too" VR pitch that consumers on other platforms aren't precisely going giddy over when you look at sales figures at least.

It's a bit of a shame

WMR Flashlight

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Despite knowing precisely why Microsoft doesn't invest more in this area, I can't help but feel disappointed about it. VR clearly has its place, both in gaming and utility. Microsoft's Mixed Reality team led by Alex Kipman has found success in its augmented reality HoloLens headset, which landed an extremely lucrative contract with the U.S. military last year, although investments on the plain old Windows Mixed Reality headset OS experiences have been a bit slow by comparison.

Microsoft is one of the few companies with the technical know-how to solve some of the issues with VR, from wirelessness, to motion sickness, ergonomics, and other things. Minecraft VR is an absolutely amazing experience, walking through my own Realm, connected to other devices, mining with your hands instead of with a cursor. It all just comes crashing down when I start feeling sick within five minutes. And no, I'm not going to take anti-sickness pills to play a game.

Rather than waiting for VR to become mainstream, Microsoft could be leading the charge instead, offering us an alternative to the potentially-untrustworthy Oculus platform, while supporting its Steam VR counterparts on Windows PC and Xbox. Alas, it doesn't look like it's meant to be.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for 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!

19 Comments
  • And take away the effort from xCloud and new first party games from XGS.. I rather have no VR on Xbox tbh. I'd say let them perfect those 2 efforts first. All I see is gamers getting angry about the lack of good VR games coming from Xbox if they do add VR.
  • If only companies had multiple teams working on different aspects of a product.
  • it is expensive but it wasn't for me at the time, got the lenovo explorer about 2 years ago on sale for 200$, probably played 50 games and spent 100$ on those games in total (most are free) and i already had a capable PC. gets expensive for the people that don't already have a PC and have to pay full price for a headset (most are 300$+). it is also awesome and worth that much to me, some of the best games i've played have been in vr as of late and it's kind of hard to go back to playing "flat" games after. can't wait to see what the future brings. i think the technologies will move along whether it's on the xbox or not so will be exciting to see when it finally gets adopted if we'll be wearing a full haptic body suit or something :) if you really wanted to try a vr setup then just get a playstation over the holidays on sale and the psvr, that would be way less than building a newish pc and buying the vr gear on top of that.
  • Microsoft are right... They have been wrong about so much over the years... But this time they are right... I'm finished with them... Got my Apple Mac, iphone and Playstation... Was the biggest MS fan but they are a boring company now...
  • Microsoft is going to be caught completely flat-footed again. Sony can't believe their good fortune in having the console VR market to themself. They sold over 4 million of a crap system. I suspect they are working feverishly to come out with an awesome VR system for the next gen and if they get it right it will sell way more than 4 or 5 million
  • And then Microsoft can jump whenever they see it as a viable market. They could bring Mixed Reality support to Xbox easily, relatively speaking.
  • They could try and react after the fact. It may work or it could may be another Windows Phone. The way they are letting WMR die from attrition is making them lose even more credibility in the space and that will make it more difficult to try and close the gap in developer relationships. Edit: Also they wouldn't be able to react swiftly because for sure the next gen PlayStation VR will be much better than current WMR. WMR was an awesome beta launch but choked from lack of funding, presumably because it wouldn't contribute to stock price in the near term. I thought for sure we would have seen WMR shortcomings fixed and a proper WMR launch within its first year. It never happened. But as with Sony we don't know for sure what if anything they have in development. But I would bet on Sony holding the winning hand.
  • Because coming in after the fact worked out so well for them with motion controls and high definition media. If you sell a console with VR included I guarantee that will give traction to VR. Ok... maybe if Sony sold a console with VR included from the get go them it might see some traction.
  • It actually worked out excellent for them, the original Kinect was very successful. Of course they went ahead and miscalculated the Xbox One launch. No one wants to be forced to buy a VR headset along with a console, especially when current VR offerings are lackluster.
  • By "very successful", do you mean lackluster developer support?
  • As far as to what causes the motion sickness, that's an easy answer and it's hard to address. Your eyes say that your moving but your inner ear (the part of the body that assists with balance) says that you're not. This conflict is what leads to motion sickness because your body isn't in agreement with what's happening. Microsoft addressed this with movement in the "cliffhouse" by having the screen fade to black during movement. It reduces the visual sensation that you're moving. The problem facing VR as I see it is that it is a bit of a chicken-egg situation, much like what we saw with Windows phone. There isn't massive investments from developers because the install base is so low. People aren't clamoring for hardware because killer apps aren't out there or widely known. The best approach to VR in my mind is to leverage already existing efforts and use it to enhance. Now it's not the sole canvas but a brush in the toolbox. Take Forza as an example. Build it as is but allow a VR option so users can get depth perception. Allow them to see how far away a turn is located. Now we're not building an experience that is exclusively VR, but we are allowing VR to be an optional enhancement to what exists. The same goes for the upcoming Flight Simulator. The option of being able to move one's head to look around the cockpit sounds like a great opportunity. Don't build Flight Simulator just for VR but make it a viable option. This approach is a lot like what we already see. A driving wheel isn't a requirement for Forza and a flight stick isn't a requirement for Flight Simulator. It's an option though that enhances the experience. Taking it a step further, a lot of HMD's have the ability to flip up. This seems like an interesting opportunity to again, enhance something that already exists but enhance the experience for those with VR headsets. Perhaps a game is primarily TV but in certain situations, the gamer can flip down their HMD and run a section of the game in VR. Perhaps it's when piloting a vehicle. What all of this does is it enhances the value of the investment for the end user. Let's say they did this with Forza and Flight Simulator and this hypothetical "part time VR" game came out and I had all of them. Now, getting a VR headset doesn't require new software for me to enjoy it. It's a lot like what we saw with the One X. The main justification I had was that a number of titles I already owned were becoming One X enhanced. I already had a healthy library of 4K games. If I already have a library of VR games, that makes the investment more interesting. But as it generally stands now, unless you have a VR headset, you don't own any VR capable games. All of this then gets back to addressing the studio investment in VR specific. The approach outlined above increases the install base and now studios have reason to invest in VR exclusive games. As the VR industry stands, I completely agree with Phil Spencer. There isn't a lot of demand for it. The startup costs are too much, users have no established library, and there are no "must-have" titles. But Microsoft is uniquely positioned to make it so there is demand for it. If it moves more Xboxes and moves Microsoft branded or licensed HMD's, I think that's a business win.
  • Actually, I would love to see augmented reality games. HoloLense or some version of it, would be a great alternative to standard VR. I know that's not something major game developers will want to invest in but, if MS did consider doing that, they would need to create some outstanding games that do not look like they are forced into it. I don't think the technology is completly there to do what would be needed and to make it something that people will actually want right now. I actually imagine a Halo Wars or similar game that can be played and your environment would be the map. But, that would take some serious developing to create software that can adapt to a player's specific environment. It would need to be able to Intelligently know where barriers are and what obsticals can be traversed or adapted for traversing. For now, I think MS is being smart about holding off, for now. Game developers need to be on board and willing create games for it, either specifically or games that can adapt to it. Otherwise, it will be the Kinect all over again.
  • I have VR on PC and still hardly ever use it. I was an early investor into the tech and while there are some nice experiences it's not a full experience. To be honest, VR is more like an advanced version of the Kinect. VR still feels like a demo fest. While the physical aspectsof VR is great for exercise at times, it's nowhere near what it could be but that kind of VR experience I'm looking for you can only find in the movies.
  • I don't use my Samsung Odyssey anymore either. At first I thought I could never go back to "pancake" titles but after about 6 months I realized that VR is just not quite good enough yet. VR is too expensive, cumbersome and bleeding edge with insufficient visual quality and worst of all lacks content. However it is getting closer and closer and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see the next gen PS hit the sweet spot. If Microsoft Flight Simulator adds VR support later that would makes things interesting
  • Isn't it obvious, Jez? You aren't people.
  • "Rather than waiting for VR to become mainstream, Microsoft could be leading the charge"
    I agree Jez. Perhaps MS should review their history of waiting until a market comes to fruition and is hot before they jump into it.
  • "Others require large amounts of floor space. And then you have Oculus VR, which is owned by Facebook, a company (stroked out "run by scumbags") with questionable ethics when it comes to privacy." Hahaha! I was drinking water and almost spat it outby laughing. 😂🤣
  • I know I'm in the minority on this but VR is one of the main reasons I chose PlayStation over Xbox for the first time ever (along with their better exclusives of course) and it will be the reason why I most likely choose Sony again.
  • You do but most don't. MS already got burned by turning against there hardcore gaming fans and they wont do it again. I like VR and I have an xbox. Think back to kinect. The number one selling console accessory in the history of consoles the fastest selling to make it to 10 million devices. The audience that was buying kinect games is for the most part the same VR market. Most VR games right now are party games. Not hardcore games. The hardcore gamers got pissed at MS and forced MS to kill off the kinect. They got pissed about MS wanting to go to digital games. MS had a terrible xbox one launch because of this. The hardcore gamers made it very clear that they only want hardcore games. They want 4k. They don't want party games. Go on the xbox forums its filled with posts of people saying VR sucks and they don't want it. Until VR makes it into hardcore games in a serious way this is not going to change and MS is not going go to VR on the console. I like VR but I am not so much in to the party games that is why I went Samsung WMR. It was inexpensive but had the best Graphics. Since there are not a ton of hardcore games made just for VR I did not want to spend a lot of money. By hardcore I mean games that take a serious amount of processing, not something you could play on the stupid play station or the Quest. Again I am not saying I don't like C=VR I do, but most xbox gamers don't.