At yesterday’s Build keynote, Microsoft opened preorders for its new line of Windows Mixed Reality development kits. Unlike HoloLens, which is also a Windows Mixed Reality device, these headsets are positioned as an alternative to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. But as it’s done before, Microsoft refused to call them “VR headsets” — because, as HoloLens inventor Alex Kipman explained, the terms virtual and augmented reality are obsolete. “These are not separate concepts. These are just labels for different points on the mixed reality continuum,” Kipman told the audience. “This is why, to simplify things, we call all of it ‘Windows Mixed Reality.’”
Kipman might be right in the long term. But for the near future, this “simplification” is making Microsoft’s VR strategy incredibly confusing.
"MICROSOFT’S “SIMPLIFICATION” IS ACTUALLY VERY CONFUSING"
Obviously, lots of people have said that virtual and augmented reality are points on a spectrum. It’s a fine philosophical observation. But Microsoft’s label makes it linguistically impossible to even specify those points. If you want to describe its entire headset platform, you can say “Windows Mixed Reality headsets.” If you’re discussing HoloLens, you can use its name. If you want to reference these new development kits, though, you have to say “Windows Mixed Reality, but not HoloLens” — or maybe just “Not-HoloLens.”
Meanwhile, the two systems are capable of completely different things. The lens-based HoloLens can convincingly overlay small objects into reality, but its field of view is too small to produce virtual environments. The screen-based Not-HoloLens can provide compelling virtual presence, but not an unfiltered view of the real world, just a comparatively low-resolution video feed. Both devices run Universal Windows Apps, and both (according to Microsoft) can map real space in a way that lets you overlay virtual objects into it. But in other ways, they aren’t interchangeable, and lots of apps will work much better on one than the other.
Kipman reasons that this is only temporary, because “in the future, we won't need to choose between transparent or opaque headsets. Devices will adapt instantly, blending the real and the virtual into mixed realities.” Okay. How? When? Present-day screen- and lens-based headsets don’t work similarly enough that you can match one by making a somewhat better version of the other. We may be several years away from a device that can capture the strengths of both, and until then, there’s no point in collapsing the categories prematurely.
"IT’S OKAY THAT VR AND AR GLASSES DO DIFFERENT THINGS RIGHT NOW"
Using the blanket “Windows Mixed Reality” label lets Microsoft stake out its own buzzword, and it echoes the idea of Windows as a single, universal platform. The company dodged around the term “augmented reality” with HoloLens because it was still associated with the maligned Google Glass, and it may be doing a similar thing with “virtual reality,” which has received its share of negative press. But insisting that HoloLens and Not-HoloLens are the same product is profoundly confusing to both users and developers — like refusing to distinguish between an Xbox and a desktop PC.
Microsoft spent years convincing people to call HoloLens a Windows-based “mixed reality headset.” Now it’s produced a completely different device that has no name except “Windows Mixed Reality headset,” with a flimsy and speculative justification. Meanwhile, the non-HoloLens version of Windows Mixed Reality still provides what the vast majority of people would describe as a virtual reality experience. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s a unique option that HoloLens can’t offer yet, and it will probably be the deciding factor for many buyers. (Along with the fact that the new headsets are an order of magnitude cheaper.) If only Microsoft would give us a word to describe it.