Microsoft has big plans for the future of virtual and augmented reality — but a press event in San Francisco Tuesday showed that the company, which never quite got mobile right, may still be stuck in a world of outdated desktop computing metaphors.
The biggest news coming out of Tuesday’s event was the introduction of Samsung’s Odyssey VR headset, which is going to retail this holiday season for $499. Like other devices from Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, Samsung’s device is based on a technology Microsoft calls Windows Mixed Reality. All of these devices need a Windows 10 PC to power them, and all of them offer inside-out tracking and use basically the same wireless controllers.
And they are capable devices, able to run some of the most popular VR apps, games, and experiences, including games like Superhot and Fantastic Contraption, as well as creative apps like Google’s Tilt Brush. However, all of these apps and games are also available for Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive headset.
The only original announcement on Thursday was Halo Recruit, a mini-game based on the original Halo franchise that will come to Windows VR headsets later this month.
With little in the way of VR content to differentiate itself from the competition, Microsoft is instead betting that its chops as an operating system maker will help it stand apart. “Windows Mixed Reality is the first spatial operating system,” said Microsoft’s Mixed Reality head Alex Kipman on stage Tuesday.
To demonstrate what this means, he put on one of Samsung’s new headsets and gave attending journalists a 20-some minute demo of Windows Mixed Reality. This included Kipman teleporting through a house decorated with both virtual artwork and a number of desktop-like windows that offered access to Pandora, Facebook, and Bing search results.
What’s more, Kipman also showed off a number of productivity tools, including a calendar, a to-do list, and what looked like the Surface-optimized version of Powerpoint. There was also Microsoft’s video app, which Kipman introduced with the words: “That’s the same app that we ship everywhere in Windows.”
Which seemed to be biggest problem: All these services just looked like 1:1 reproductions of apps and web apps running on Windows PCs and tablets, complete with scroll bars, links, and other desktop interface elements. Only, in VR, all of this was blown up, displayed on a giant TV screen in a virtual room. At one point, even Kipman seemed to struggle to turn off a Pandora stream by pointing his motion controller at tiny play and pause buttons.
Kipman went on to tell his audience that he often works for hours wearing a headset while sitting at his desk. “I’m using these things now more than my monitor,” he said.
That’s impressive — but likely not what most consumers want to do with VR. And it’s arguably also not the best use for the technology, even in a business or creative setting. VR’s strength is that it opens up the third dimension, which makes it a great tool for illustrators, or Hollywood creatives looking to pre-visualize a movie scene before the actual shoot.
Accessing your calendar, browsing the web, or working on your to-do list are not tasks that benefit from VR — especially if the implementations are done in 2D, and the virtual worlds around them are just eye candy. A Powerpoint presentation is still a Powerpoint presentation, even if it’s being viewed on top of a virtual mountain.
To be fair, the industry is just beginning to figure out interaction models for virtual reality, and there is still a lot more to come. But that’s exactly why this is so important to set expectations now. Every day at work, we all use visual metaphors invented in the 1970s, at the dawn of desktop computing. Let’s make sure that we find some new metaphors for this next wave of computing.