A new reality

Microsoft turned heads with HoloLens in 2016, but with the launch of its mixed reality platform, James Guion, UK Windows category manager, tells Jonathan Easton about the tech’s bright future

How has the reaction been to the platform and do you feel it has had a strong launch?

It’s been positive. We’ve launched with some of the big retailers in the UK. So if I talked specifically about the UK elements of this we have launched with Dixons Carphone Group, Curry’s PC World and the likes of John Lewis and Amazon where we’ve really seen great traction, particularly with people buying gaming PCs, gaming laptops and gaming desktops. This amazingly immersive experience is now available through games and applications from the Microsoft store. Games like Super Hot VR, Arizona Sunshine Space Pirate Trainer, and the broader Steam catalog have seen that audience being particularly receptive in this early stage of launch. So, yes we’re really pleased with that.

And you’ve seen people mostly pick up on it as a gaming thing to begin with?

Primarily yes, but we have other experiences. We’ve been doing demos in stores with our partners, so we get a good read on what people are enjoying from the experience as well. Outside of gaming, there are other experience like HoloTour that people find really engaging and they can see the benefits that this will bring to the likes of education in the future. Minecraft is another one that sort of spans outside the specific gaming area and opens up to a slightly different gaming audience which is also good. So that’s something else you can enjoy with Windows Mixed Reality.

In terms of the headsets themselves you’ve paired with a Acer, Dell, Lenovo and HP. How closely did Microsoft work with them in the development?

We worked very closely on the development of their headsets, right the way through to the launch. Partners actually license Microsoft technology that we’ve used in Hololens so the inside-out tracking cameras that we have on the headsets are all delivering a really good quality of experience no matter which brand you’re using. The same applies with the optics of the lenses. We’ve made sure they’re all giving the same level of fidelity and experience.

It’s great that we have all these companies coming to the table because they bring their own brand, their unique look and feel, the differences in the way that you wear them on your head, the materials, etc. This gives consumers a choice in terms of what their preference is. Ultimately they all get the same level of experience whichever device they’re using because we want to make sure everyone gets a good experience combined with whatever PC that they are using.

Is there a level of quality or a benchmark that Microsoft goes to these vendors with and says that it has to meet?

For the headsets yes there is and there is for the PCs as well. So we’ll actually conduct testing with the manufacturers of the PCs to make sure that they work really well in terms of the components that are inside them. We have a standard called Windows Mixed Reality Ultra and we have Windows Mixed Reality. Windows Mixed Reality delivers the best, high resolution experience for gaming. Windows Mixed Reality Ultra doesn’t cover all the games, but gives everyone an opportunity on a slightly less powerful PC, without some of the most popular Nvidia graphics cards in there, to enjoy these experiences as well.

The first wave of VR headsets had a very high barrier to entry. How big a factor was accessibility in the development?

It’s definitely something that Microsoft wants to continue to explore so that more and more people can enjoy a really good experience of mixed reality or virtual reality. There’s still some way to go to fully bring it to all PCs in the future, but we’re continuing to work to do that and bring the content experiences to support that as well so that more and more consumers can enjoy incredible experiences. They may not be able to just play games, but that’s more of early evolution over time as more people get involved. The big thing is for people to try this because so many people haven’t tried fully immersive virtual reality yet. That’s been part of our focus with Currys PC World and John Lewis, so that you can go into select stores and try this out for yourself if you haven’t tried it at an event or at a friend’s house so far. Because that’s a key part to teach people to understand the benefits of this.

Do you think that consumers are generally more aware of what the experience is compared with this time 12 months ago?

Yes, I do, but there’s still a huge number of people in the UK who haven’t tried it yet, or at least tried a good experience of virtual reality. But as more and more pop-up locations appear where you can pay and play, that helps people understand what virtual reality is and how incredible it can be. But making sure that they have got the right device to really get that great experience in the home is the next stage. And then bringing it in and engaging with it with all the content that’s out there already and the future content that’s going to come. I think it’s still, relatively speaking, early days in the grand scheme of things. As that technology is adopted, it does take time for it to reach the real mass market. We’re still not in the mass market yet with this.

So who do you think the onus falls on to get the tech in front of more people? Do you think it’s down to the retailers on the high street, or is it up to the vendors themselves?

I think it’s down to all of us working together to create the category. Ultimately as more and more consumers get their hands on this equipment and use it, they’ll be showing it to friends and family so that’s a key area. It is important that it is at the right events and showing up in retail stores as well. There’s obviously a cost equation in terms of how many stores to go to. But we’re making good progress and learning along the way. The key thing is that we know the people who are trying it out are blown away by it and they think it’s incredible. Those people buy it and are using it and so that is great.

Was there a particular reason that Microsoft didn’t just say ‘okay we’re building the platform and we’re going to build the hardware ourselves’?

At Microsoft we love to work with our partners to give them the benefit of the new technologies that we’ve created. We’ll continue to do that in the future. There’s a great opportunity for them to bring their own flavour to it, their expertise around hardware development to make it an even better experience and to give consumers the choice of brand or materials or design or colour that the different manufacturers can bring. They also have their own audiences and affiliations so there’s a great way that they could tie Windows Mixed Reality to that as well.

What was the thinking behind the house set up you boot into with the headset?

It’s called Clifftop House and the idea is that it makes it more of a friendly, familiar environment for you when you’re engaging in this new experience. So that becomes your virtual house and you’re able to customise it, and put pictures on the walls, holograms at different places, or screens on the walls.

And that’s where you start to see some of the mixed reality platform expand that by mixing the real with the virtual world. You can virtual screens on real walls where the device has mapped out the room that you’re in. Whereas in the consumer Mixed Reality headsets you’re in this kind of virtual world but again you’re able to interact in a similar way using the same applications, the same screens and same holograms as well. So there’s that part to it, but it’s ultimately about making your own. Whenever you go into it if you’ve moved your laptop and your headset to a different place and mapped out a different location to experience it in, you still go into the same environment so you could show it to other people around if they were trying it out.

You can find things as quickly as you can on your Windows desktop environment, but it’s a beautiful and immersive environment for people to get into when they start using it. I think longer term as well it’s about how you make the environment more sociable. So how when you’re in this virtual experience could you bring in a friend who’s also in a virtual experience that they could explore your house and you could sit and watch yourself together or do other things. We’re looking at it from that perspective as well as the platform grows and develops.

Right now, it’s it’s a mixed reality product with the cameras on the front, but all the applications for it are VR.

Pretty much, yeah. The platform itself is Windows and we have at the moment two opposite ends of the spectrum experience. HoloLens is true mixed reality and then we have new headsets which are, essentially, a virtual reality and fully immersive experience. The aim is for developers to develop a hologram or an application that works across both headsets, both experiences. But obviously you’ll get a different level of experience, one being fully 360 immersive, and the other being fully mixed. As time goes by, those technologies will evolve and merge and so you’ll be able to wear one headset, jump between a truly mixed environment and then flip to a truly virtual environment. Because there are benefits to both depending on what you’re trying to get out of the experience.

But it means that people developing on Windows Mixed Reality today won’t have to start developing on different platforms in the future, so they can create one experience that will span across both platforms as we move forward. It makes it easier for developers to develop as well because they use the same tools. Not every experience they create will work across both today, obviously some things don’t make sense. For example, HoloTour is an app that we have in the store that works on HoloLens and also works on the new mixed reality headsets that allows you to go to Rome and see the Colosseum be rebuilt around you. But it feels very different depending on which one you’re enjoying. It’s much more immersive when you’re using some of the newer mixed reality headsets.

The other thing is costs. HoloLens is very expensive because of the technology required to bring that to be a good experience.Whereas we are now able to connect a roughly £400 headset with controllers to a powerful PC. That needs a good PC, but for a much lower price a lot of people can now enjoy the mixed reality platform and start using it. It’s about setting us up for the long term as this mixed reality platform develops and gives the breadth of experiences that we’re looking to bring to people.

From my brief experience of HoloLens in the past, I would see it more as an educational and enterprise tool, and from my time with mixed reality that definitely seems like it’s more of a consumer focused device. Is that the idea that Microsoft has of the two?

Yes it is today. There are two extremes if you like. There is commercial enterprise, amazing for training people and locking some incredible things for business. At the moment the Windows Mixed Reality sets are primarily for consumers, primarily for gamers. As I said you want to unlock these great experiences and we’re looking to open that up to more people as time goes by.

What are some of the more interesting apps and programs you’ve seen with the tech?

Outside of the games environment, the ones that really captivate me personally are some of the entertainment experiences, on the educational side of things as well. So I really love HoloTour. I love the fact that you go somewhere you’ve never been before and get an understanding of the place. You can see the Colosseum or ancient Machu Picchu rebuilt so you’re learning about history in a completely immersive way. So I think it would be amazing for education as we move into the future. I’m seeing things like a blue whale going through the oceans, being at events with 360 videos. Some of the kind of VR-based entertainment stuff like Free The Night shows where entertainment can go beyond film and beyond this big screen entertainment. You’ll be able to be able to immerse yourself in some amazing things more and more into the future.

Lastly I just want to talk about the future. There are four vendors which are producing headsets in the UK, are there any other parties you’ve got on board that are going to be bringing headsets out?

I don’t about that know yet for the UK but there are other partners involved around the world. Watch this space really in terms of what else comes to the UK and around the world over the next few years. In the US, Samsung and Asus have headsets out. Lots more possibilities and options are to come. But nothing else to say specifically for the UK at this stage.

It’s an exciting experience for all of us as technology evolves, as the consumer evolves and as people get used to the experience. As the months and years unfold more and more content will come into play as well. 

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