Depending on which analysts you choose to believe, Windows Mixed Reality headsets will either sell strongly, outselling the Oculus Rift by two-to-one and the HTC Vive by ten-to-fifteen percent in the fourth quarter… or get off to a slow start, with VR remaining niche.
On the more upbeat side is market research firm SuperData. SuperData points to the advantages of Microsoft’s platform: low-price headsets (ranging from $299 to $499) and lower hardware specs (a basic experience will work on machines with Skylake-integrated graphics, though more advanced titles will require discrete GPUs). The inside-out tracking of the Windows headsets also makes for easier installation: no need to mount base stations on the walls or anything like that; just plug the headset in and go.
The Windows platform will also have a good range of content; Microsoft has its own IP such as Halo and Minecraft, and the platform will also be compatible with SteamVR, giving access to two VR ecosystems with a single headset purchase.
Less positive is IHS Markit. Although the features of the Mixed Reality platform are appealing, the firm says, virtual reality as a whole remains a niche proposition; expectations are that across the range of Windows headsets—HP, Dell, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, and Samsung will all have devices—only 280,000 will be sold by year-end.
Both firms pointed at some confusion around Microsoft’s “Mixed Reality” terminology. As a developer-facing platform, “Mixed Reality” is a sensible term to use: Microsoft’s APIs support a wide range of devices and use cases. These include not just the virtual reality headsets that will go on sale later this month but also augmented reality hardware such as HoloLens and through-the-camera augmented reality applications (think Pokémon Go, but better) running on tablets, PCs, or even phones. When talking to developer audiences, emphasizing this depth and variety and encouraging them to think of the full range of scenarios makes a lot of sense.
But as a consumer-facing term, “Mixed Reality” is unhelpful at best. “Virtual reality” is terminology that’s understood, and that’s what the headsets deliver. In fact, that’s all they deliver; although the headsets do include integrated cameras, those cameras are black and white and are used exclusively for positional tracking. They aren’t the right hardware to offer through-the-camera-style augmented reality. One could imagine building virtual reality headsets that had the right cameras—with the right field of view and the right positioning—to offer augmented reality, but these first-generation Windows headsets aren’t that.
It remains to be seen how Microsoft will actually market Mixed Reality, but with the hardware that will be available and the understanding of the “virtual reality” term, the company would arguably be wise to quietly ignore the “MR” term and stick with “VR” when putting these things in front of consumers.
While the spin is a bit different, these two predictions might not be entirely at odds with each other. SuperData estimated that over the first eight or so months of their availability in 2016, 240,000 Rifts and 420,000 Vives were sold. 280,000 Windows headsets in about two-and-a-half months would simultaneously represent a much stronger start than the Rift and Vive experienced, while still being, in absolute terms, a niche product. Compare it, for example, with another product that turns out to also have had niche appeal: Microsoft’s original Kinect saw more than 8 million sales in the first two months, topping 10 million sales after three months on the market. This gives the Windows MR headsets ample scope to both trounce the Rift and Vive while still remaining very much a rarity.
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