Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, at Microsoft's recent Xbox showcase event.
Image Credit: Dean Takahashi
Earlier this week Microsoft revealed it was shutting down the Mixer streaming platform and partnering with Facebook Gaming instead. Could this potentially mean big things for Xbox VR support finally via a relationship with Facebook-owned Oculus?
In order to understand the significance of what this could mean for Xbox and for VR as a whole, it’s important to first look back and understand the past four years of broken promises and misleading marketing.
Microsoft’s frustrating history with Xbox VR
During the E3 2016 Microsoft presentation, Xbox boss Phil Spencer revealed Project Scorpio, which later went became the Xbox One X. In that speech, he explicitly stated the console would provide, “true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR. True 4K visuals without sacrificing quality. Premiere VR experiences without sacrificing performance.”
See for yourself:
It has promises of no exclusivity deals, stable 90fps for console VR, and Microsoft’s own Mixed Reality content getting brought over to Xbox VR. In fact, Spencer went so far as to re-confirm VR support was coming to Xbox One X in June 2017 (just five months prior to the console releasing) and then did a complete 180-degree change four months later in October 2017, just a month before it launched, explaining they didn’t want to “distract” developers.
The VR promises never materialized. The slogan “hi-fidelity VR” was plastered all over the Project Scorpio website — at least, until it suddenly vanished — and since then Spencer has not stopped backpedaling.
In November 2019 Spencer went on-record as saying that VR is too isolating and that “nobody’s asking for VR” out of their consumer base. Sony’s own Shuhei Yoshida responded on Twitter in a rather coy manner, saying:
Then in February, after the reveal of the Xbox Series X, Spencer explained that he hopes Xbox VR becomes a “no brainer” but that it won’t be there at launch despite the console clearly being powerful enough to support it well.
Meanwhile, in other areas of Microsoft, the Windows Mixed Reality VR platform is continuing along and the HoloLens is already on its second iteration — now shipping to anyone that wants to buy one for a few grand.
The Windows VR headsets aren’t top of the line by any means in general, but they certainly get the job done as affordable entry points into a growing ecosystem with blockbuster titles like The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners and Half-Life: Alyx (to name just two from this year so far) seemingly proving the opposite of Spencer’s argument. On top of all that you’ve got the Oculus Quest, a breakout success for standalone wireless VR, and the PSVR, Sony’s flagship immersive headset that sits as the market leader with millions of headsets sold and a stellar lineup of platform exclusives.
If “nobody’s asking for VR” as Spencer says, who is buying all of these VR headsets and VR games?
Microsoft’s partnership with Facebook Gaming
Earlier this week Microsoft announced the decision to shut down its livestreaming platform, Mixer. The service was positioned as a direct competitor to Twitch featuring livestreaming channels and internet personalities playing a wide variety of video games. Big name streamers, like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, even signed multimillion dollar exclusivity deals with Microsoft to stream on Mixer, leaving Twitch behind, very recently. That all seems to have been a waste of money.
Along with the Mixer news came the news that Microsoft will instead partner with Facebook Gaming, a hybrid brand from Facebook that encompasses not only livestreaming and traditional video games but also mobile-focused casual games you can play within Facebook Messenger with friends or in the mobile app. Microsoft plans to use this partnership to replace the absence of Mixer and to bolster Project xCloud, its cloud-based game streaming service that is positioned in opposition to Google Stadia and PS Now.
The implications this partnership could have for cloud gaming are quite large — two of the largest tech companies on the planet have entered into a partnership, which is quite surprising. But it’s far more exciting to think about what it could mean for Xbox VR.
Why now is the time to finally keep the Xbox VR promise
Above: Samsung’s HMD Odyssey is just one of numerous headsets compatible with Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality program.
If you owned an Oculus Rift back when it first launched in 2016, you might remember that Oculus Touch wasn’t out yet. That’s right: The original Rift launched without any motion controllers. The only tracked thing in that box was the headset itself using a single camera.
Instead, right alongside the headset and single camera, your box included an actual, official Xbox One controller.
It seems weird now because that relationship never flourished further, but the groundwork seems to have at least partially been laid half a decade ago for Xbox VR to happen.
Now with the Xbox Series X on the horizon, it seems like the perfect time to rekindle that relationship. By aligning with Facebook Gaming for streaming and cloud gaming, the door is now open to foster a partnership between Oculus and Microsoft to get Oculus headsets working with Xbox.
Microsoft hasn’t added support for their own VR headsets, but since the Xbox Series X is extremely capable out of the box, adding support for the Rift S or Quest — two headsets that are tracked via inside-out sensors built into the headset — seems like an excellent middle ground.
I reached out to both Xbox PR and Oculus PR to ask for comment on this concept, but didn’t receive anything useful. They’re staying tight-lipped if that’s the play.
Now is the time. Xbox has a stable of studios in their pocket right now, some of which have VR experience already like Ninja Theory and inXile, that could knock it out of the park with the power of an Xbox VR platform.
Innovating in the gaming space comes down to taking risks and backing bold ideas, not playing it safe. I’m fairly certain no one was “asking for” Xbox Live prior to the original Xbox, but Microsoft changed gaming forever anyway.
You need to read the room to gauge the direction the industry is slowly shifting. Perhaps the issue at hand here isn’t that nobody’s asking for VR, but that nobody’s listening.