New features, but is Windows Mixed Reality going to be the next big thing?
It has arrived: Windows 10 version 1709, build 16299, the Fall Creators Update. Members of the Windows Insider program have been able to use this latest iteration for a while now, but today's the day it will hit Windows Update for the masses.
As with the Creators Update earlier this year, the Windows Update deployment will be slow to start off with. After a spate of issues around the Anniversary Update, which shipped in 2016, Microsoft took a more measured approach with the Creators Update. It took about five months for the previous update to reach two-thirds of machines, as the company rolled the operating system out first to systems known to be compatible, then expanded its reach to an ever larger range of hardware and software, and finally opened the floodgates and offered it to (almost) any Windows 10 machine.
Again like the Creators Update, anyone who is impatient and wants to forcibly install the new version will be able to do so with the Update Assistant and Media Creation Tool when they get updated, presumably at some point today.
The Fall Creators Update contains an almost random selection of new features and improvements. Some of the built-in apps have been updated, though many of the apps are now notionally decoupled from the base operating system, because they're distributed and updated through the Store, their releases are somewhat synchronized with operating system updates anyway. Other low-level parts of the operating system are being re-engineered, some new features have been added, and some features have been removed from some SKUs and pushed into more expensive ones. A handful of features do continue the 3D content creation theme started in the Creators Update, but the rest are all over the place. And a couple of things that should have been more of a theme of this update aren't; they're more of a work in progress.
In spite of this, the Fall Creators Update may yet prove to be a bit special because of the other thing that is becoming available today: Windows Mixed Reality headsets. The Creators Update included early support for the development of virtual and augmented reality applications, but it required the use of developer mode to enable. With version 1709, it's no longer gated—Mixed Reality support is lit up for everyone.
First things first, let's talk about and criticize that terminology. Mixed Reality (MR) is an umbrella term. It covers Virtual Reality (VR), which provides 3D worlds using vision-occluding headsets, and it covers Augmented Reality (AR), which overlays computer-generated objects onto the real world. AR is supported using both overlay systems in transparent headsets, most notably Microsoft's own HoloLens headset, and through-the-camera systems of the kind used in Pokémon Go, where a video stream from a rear-facing camera is overlaid with computer-generated objects. Windows MR offers a common set of APIs to develop applications for all these systems and for developers using those APIs, the different kinds of hardware and interaction are an important consideration in application design. So for these groups, the Mixed Reality appellation makes sense.
But for everyone else, what we're actually talking about (at least for now) is Virtual Reality. In tandem with the launch of the Fall Creators Update, virtual reality headsets from Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo are also on sale, starting at $299, or $399 with bundled motion controllers. Samsung's Odyssey headset will go on sale on November 6, and a headset from Asus will hit the market next year. Microsoft is branding these all Mixed Reality headsets, in line with the branding of its APIs, and I think this is a mistake. It should use the clearer VR term for them, not least because these devices don't support any kind of video pass-through or overlay feature.
VR headsets have been readily available for PCs for more than a year now, so what's the big deal with these? It's a trifecta of things. First, the price: they're pushing the price down of the headsets themselves. Second, the hardware requirements: Microsoft has defined two tiers of VR performance, and the base tier only requires Skylake-or-better integrated graphics. This is in contrast to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, both of which demand discrete GPUs. Microsoft's higher tier also requires a discrete GPU, using the greater graphics power for higher frame rates and a wider field of view. But the point is, a whole load of computers are now "VR compatible" when they weren't before—and at least for the apps I've used, most notably Minecraft, the lower tier of performance is good enough.
The third thing is that the Windows headsets are easy. The first generation headsets from HTC and Oculus all need fixed base stations to be installed in any room using VR. This is inconvenient, and it greatly complicates the initial installation and subsequent maintenance (because those base stations have firmware that occasionally needs flashing) of a VR system. The Oculus and HTC devices need these because they depend on data from fixed vantage points to track movement in space.
The Windows VR headsets don't need the base stations. They just hook up to a computer using HDMI and USB. All the positional tracking smarts are built into the headsets and Microsoft's software, and these products use a combination of accelerometer input and a video stream from integrated black-and-white cameras to track movement. This is called "inside-out" tracking (because it only depends on the headset itself, no external anchors or references or input), and it provides six-degree-of-freedom positional tracking (rotation and around translation along the three spatial axes).
Some may scoff at the idea that the Rift and Vive are complex, but Microsoft, which sold the VR headsets from its own stores, reported high return rates precisely because of this setup complexity. People wanting to try VR and willing to buy some really rather expensive hardware to do so were defeated at the very first hurdle: getting the hardware set up in the first place. Even if you can handle that setup complexity, it's still frustrating that you can't, say, easily take your VR setup to a friend's house to show them the latest VR game. With the Windows VR headsets, you can.
Is this going to be enough to usher in a VR revolution? Initial expectations are rather modest, and there are still aspects of VR, such as the isolation from the world around you, that are disquieting and which don't yet have any truly great solutions.
But there are points in Windows VR's favor. Compared to the headsets that have gone before it, Windows VR's reach is far and away the widest of any PC-based VR system. The low price, low hardware requirements, and drastically easier setup ensure that much. Windows VR should also have a good range of software, too. By some miracle, Microsoft has been working with Valve to make SteamVR compatible with Windows VR, and by holiday season it should be possible to play SteamVR games on Windows VR hardware.
Microsoft also has some titles of its own that'll provide a draw—Minecraft in VR is a no-brainer for the legion of fans of the block-based world creator. A Halo-derived title has also been promised.
Personally, the game that truly convinced me VR can have value was Superhot VR. Superhot is a quirky first person shooter where time only moves when you do. This lets you do things like dodge bullets and carefully plan your attacks on the enemies. Superhot VR takes this to a whole new level for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, it tracks your actual movement, so time only moves when you physically do. Second, the use of motion controllers means you can use both hands simultaneously: you can punch a guy with one hand, knocking his gun up into the air, and then catch it with your other hand, while preparing to punch a second guy. You can look around in 3D and do things that you're not directly looking at. The game breaks the traditional first person shooter constraints, and it does so in a way that feels very natural and fluid. It's truly made better by the VR.
If a stable of games can be built that, like Superhot VR, genuinely leverage the new capabilities of VR in a way that provides compelling gameplay—gameplay that's genuinely better than that of traditional graphics—then VR will deservedly become a fixture of the gaming landscape.
Microsoft, of course, has ambitions beyond gaming. The user interface for Windows Mixed Reality is an architecturally implausible house on the coast, with apps pinned to the walls. These apps don't have to be particularly "3D." Regular 2D applications such as the Edge browser and Skype are also visible in the house, with the apps looking a bit like paintings on the wall. In principle, any application built for the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) can be run in the house, and developers can extend 2D applications to provide 3D capabilities in a piecemeal fashion. Edge, in fact, does this: it supports WebVR, which enables Web content to embed 3D virtual reality graphics.
This means that you can, for example, watch a video in the Movies and TV app, with the picture being projected onto a "screen" on the virtual wall of your virtual house. You can make the screen bigger so that it fills your field of view, or even extends beyond it, moving your head to take in the full picture. Microsoft isn't yet offering any kind of "virtual reality desktop" to support the infinite multiple monitors that some people have dreamed of—and VR headset resolutions would probably have to be increased before that became truly practical—but the house interface plants the first seeds of this kind of concept. It's up to developers to figure out what to do with it.