That new Surface Studio computer may have been the star of Microsoft’s show last Wednesday, but the story that didn’t get enough attention was how Microsoft is expanding its plans for augmented and virtual reality, the platforms many think will usher in a new era of computing.
Next year, Microsoft will release a free update to Windows 10 called the Creators Update that includes the ability to plug a virtual reality headset into your PC. The headsets are relatively cheap too, starting at $299. They’ll be built by all the top PC makers like Dell, Lenovo, and Asus.
But they’re more than just affordable headsets. They also have features you still can’t get in high-end headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which costs $599. Most notably, the headsets are able to provide free range of motion without an external camera tracking you.
Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s head of the HoloLens and other augmented and virtual reality projects, told Business Insider in an interview last week that the new portfolio of VR headsets will be the “most immersive and and powerful headsets at the most affordable price.”
That last bit about affordability is a major caveat, of course. While the new headsets from Dell, Lenovo, and the rest may not match the Oculus Rift in terms of display quality, they’ll immediately be more accessible and in some ways more capable.
Right now, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require very powerful PCs that can cost $1,000 or more. But the Windows 10 headsets will be able to run on PCs that cost around $500. In many cases, if you have a computer that can run Windows 10, you have a computer that works with VR.
That's a huge advantage. VR is still in its very early stages and isn't accessible to many people. But opening it up to a large portion of the Windows ecosystem with affordable headsets could give VR a major boost.
Then there's the tracking. Kipman boasted how this will be a major advantage for the new headsets over the competition. Microsoft will let VR headset makers use similar built-in tracking that's found in the HoloLens, which is completely untethered from a PC and can "scan" your surroundings so you can move about freely in VR.
While the Vive and Oculus Rift make you install a camera or laser emitters in your room to achieve that effect, the Windows headsets will be able to do it without an external accessories and for several hundred dollars cheaper. Facebook briefly teased its own Oculus Rift with that "inside out" tracking, but it's still in the early stages. Microsoft will have it ready by next spring.
With one update to Windows, Microsoft will immediately leapfrog much of its VR competition. It's going to be the easiest, most affordable way to experience high-end VR and puts the company in a position to dominate the category.