Microsoft’s mixed reality strategy seems stalled, but is it all part of the plan?

hololens development edition pre order ship date microsoft preorders 2
Microsoft has come to be a major part of the augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) arena. Its HoloLens headset took the industry by storm when it was announced in January 2015, and a new wave of MR and virtual reality (VR) headsets from Microsoft’s OEM partners, enabled by Windows Mixed Reality, began to take shape.

And they’re still taking shape. Fast forward to April 2017, and with no consumer HoloLens or Windows Mixed Reality headset in sight, it seems like Microsoft has hit the pause button. Has its mixed reality vision stalled, or is this part of the company’s master plan?

HoloLens is still expensive and experimental

Today, HoloLens remains a highly visible yet prototype solution that seems both experimental and mainstream at the same time. Beyond the $3,000 developer’s edition, though, it’s no closer to widespread release than it was when first revealed. It remains solely a commercial endeavor involving very large organizations like Lowes and NASA.

Furthermore, industry watchers reported in February that Microsoft has cancelled a second generation of the HoloLens headset that would have lowered the price and shrunk the form factor — both improvements that would make HoloLens more attractive to consumers. Apparently, the company considers the current version to be sufficient to maintain the product’s place in the nascent market, and it therefore decided to skip to a third generation, to be released in 2019 at the earliest.

Windows Mixed Reality is now a late-2017 proposition

This bad news was relieved by news from Microsoft’s Creators Update reveal event in October 2016, where the company highlighted an upcoming wave of lower-priced MR and virtual reality (VR) headsets using the application programming interfaces (APIs), once known as Windows Holographic and recently renamed to Windows Mixed Reality. These new headsets were expected to arrive from Microsoft’s OEM partners around the Creators Update’s release, which is happening next week, on April 11.

However, although some OEMs showed off early versions of Windows Holographic headsets at CES 2017, and Microsoft distributed Windows Mixed Reality developer kits at GDC 2017, we now know that Windows Mixed Reality headsets won’t arrive until late in 2017.

microsofts windows mixed reality is slowing down developers kit

In other words, two years after Microsoft first introduced HoloLens, we seem nowhere closer to Microsoft’s vision of a commercial mixed reality ecosystem based on HoloLens, Windows Mixed Reality, and third-party headsets. It certainly appears that Microsoft is slowing things down, which raises a related question — is slowing things down the same as falling behind?

Is it a slowdown, or a strategy?

Microsoft had the stage to itself when it first announced HoloLens. It was amazing technology unlike anything most people had ever experienced. HoloLens took the concept of simple augmented reality and stepped it up a notch. Better still, HoloLens itself looked compact and complete. It was easy to imagine it on a store shelf in a year.

Since then, however, others have joined in the fray. Magic Leap, for example, which is the most comparable MR product, has received massive financing from Google and appears poised to release an MR headset in 2017 priced at over $1,000.

odg r 8 9 ar glasses ces 2017 augmented 0001

Magic Leap isn’t the only worry. Apple is rumored to be planning to experiment with AR with its release of the iPhone 8 later this year, and to expand into dedicated AR hardware at some point in the future.

ODG is another company with big plans for AR, with glasses that support the same kind of six-degrees-of-freedom tracking that HoloLens provides, but at about half the price. ODG’s timeframe is also more aggressive, with developers gaining access to the devices this quarter and then a widespread release to follow shortly thereafter. We’ve tried ODG’s technology at trade shows, and despite its smaller footprint, it beats the current HoloLens in field-of-view and apparent image resolution.

Amidst mounting competition, Microsoft’s opportunity to leverage its standing in the market continues to recede. While no other company has set-in-stone plans or timelines either, several companies at least appear to be pulling ahead. But while Microsoft could be falling behind, it’s also possible that it simply isn’t worried.

Microsoft’s mixed reality strategy looks a lot like Surface 2.0

When Microsoft first announced in June 2016 that it would open Windows Holographic to OEM partners for making their own mixed reality products, it released this statement. “Windows 10 includes Windows Holographic, the platform that powers the amazing mixed reality experiences available on Microsoft HoloLens today. It offers a holographic shell and interaction model, perception APIs, and Xbox Live services. Consistent with our approach to Surface, our development efforts on HoloLens are designed to push the limits and create opportunity across the ecosystem.”

Two years after Microsoft first introduced HoloLens, we seem nowhere closer to Microsoft’s vision

If you take Microsoft at its word, then, it is taking same tactic with Windows Mixed Reality that it’s taken with Windows 10 in general. It created its Surface hardware line at least in part to show its OEM partners how to make better Windows 10 machines.

And that strategy worked. The Windows 10 PC hardware ecosystem is stronger than ever, with an incredibly wide range of high-quality machines from tablets, to 360-degree convertibles, to traditional notebooks in the mobile space, and a host of robust gaming and all-in-one (AIO) options on the desktop. For the most part, Microsoft has priced its Surface products at the extreme high-end of the market, leaving its OEM partners with plenty of room to succeed with their own, more reasonably priced hardware.

Perhaps Microsoft sees HoloLens in the same vein. It might serve as a halo device to prod the industry forward in mixed reality, with the hope that the Windows Mixed Reality platform will take off as the preferred development environment. That would further solidify Windows 10 as the leading OS for yet another growing technology segment.

It would also mean that, ultimately, Microsoft doesn’t care if HoloLens becomes the de facto consumer MR product. HoloLens could very well remain a relatively high-priced product aimed at large commercial interests, and perhaps for MR enthusiasts. The company might be just as happy with a robust ecosystem of Windows 10-based Windows Mixed Reality headsets sold by a host of OEM partners.

Indeed, that could be Microsoft’s competitive ace in the hole. Rather than facing competitors like Magic Leap, Apple, and ODG on its own, Microsoft could be working toward the same kind of ecosystem that maintains Windows 10 as the dominant PC operating system. And, it doesn’t face nearly the same competitive pressures as it was up against — and defeated by — in smartphones.

Windows Mixed Reality is one of Microsoft’s biggest bets in computing

According to a recent email sent from Microsoft’s Yusuf Mehdi, the company’s Corporate Vice President of the Windows and Devices Group, Windows Mixed Reality is one of its “biggest bets” regarding the future of computing. The company plans to make significant investments in mixed reality heading into the holidays in 2017, and it’s hired some of the best people in the industry to move its mixed reality initiatives forward. Microsoft recently highlighted the success of its mixed reality application development environment as part of celebrating HoloLens’ first birthday.

To answer our own question, then: has Microsoft’s mixed reality vision stalled? We’d say it hasn’t. Rather, it’s evolved, as all good strategies do, into something far more potent. HoloLens will, as Surface does for touch and pen, serve to demonstrate to an army of OEMs exactly what’s possible with Windows 10 and its Windows Mixed Reality platform, while leaving plenty of room for those OEMs to make a profit.

If anyone should be worried about the progress that Microsoft is making in carrying out its mixed reality strategy, it’s Microsoft’s competitors.

Computing

Could the next Microsoft HoloLens be announced at MWC 2019?

After not having a presence at Mobile World Congress for three years, Microsoft is now sending out media invites for a press conference on February 24 during the annual event in Barcelona. Could a next-generation HoloLens be on the way?
Computing

Microsoft is getting ready for a coming wave of foldable Windows 10 devices

Windows 10 might soon have a new look. A leaked string for an internal Windows 10 19H1 build shows that Microsoft is getting ready to build Windows 10 for a future wave of foldable devices.
Cars

Augmented reality navigation overlays direction information onto the road

Hyundai has unveiled a futuristic head-up display for cars at CES 2019. The Holographic Augmented Reality (AR) Navigation System shows information like directions that appear in front of the driver's eyes, overlaid onto the road.
Gaming

These are the coolest virtual and augmented reality gadgets from CES 2019

CES 2019 had plenty of VR and AR gadgets on display, including headsets that completely change how you experience virtual reality, and some that don't even require a PC or a phone to run.
Computing

How to share an external hard drive between Mac and Windows

Compatibility issues between Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS may have diminished sharply over the years, but that doesn't mean they've completely disappeared. Here's how to make an external drive work between both operating systems.
Computing

Should you buy the affordable MacBook Air, or is the MacBook Pro worth the price?

Though they both share Retina Displays and similar keyboards, there are still some specs differences and other changes that differentiate the new 2018 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. In this guide, we stack the two up against each other.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Computing

Chip off the auction block – Intel’s i9-9990XE may be sold to the highest bidder

Intel's alleged Core i9-9990XE may only be sold at auction to OEMs, meaning that only a few of the 14-core, 28-thread, 5GHz CPUs will ever see the light of day in specific devices and systems.
Android

Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019: Complete Coverage

There's no bigger show for mobile tech geeks than Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain: where flagship phones are born and intriguing new wearables shine. And this year, where foldable phones and 5G are likely to dominate the news. For…
Computing

Google is giving its G Suite web apps new touches of visual improvements

Your G Suite applications will soon have a different look. Several of the web apps are getting updated with subtle visual improvements inspired by Google's Material Design guidelines. 
Computing

Hackers are scoring with ransomware that attacks its previous victims

Computer viruses are always evolving. In a new one, dubbed "Ryuk," hackers are targeting PCs with ransomware that scours an infected network in order to pinpoint and attack and enterprises with big money.
Computing

An update to Microsoft To-Do will help you keep up with your resolutions

If you're looking to stay productive in 2019, you might want to check out the freshly updated Microsoft To-Do app, now with additional integration with the Windows 10 Start Menu and more.
Computing

Want to save a webpage as a PDF? Just follow these steps

Need to quickly save and share a webpage? The best way is to learn how to save a webpage as a PDF file, as they're fully featured and can handle images and text with ease. Here's how.
Computing

Microsoft to separate Cortana from search with the next version of Windows 10

Changes are on the way for two key features in Windows 10. A separation of Windows 10 search and Cortana will allow Microsoft to more often innovate on each of the features independently.