Microsoft’s HoloLens holographic headset runs a special version of Windows 10, Windows Holographic. At Computex today, the company announced that Windows Holographic is coming to more than just the HoloLens: Microsoft wants it to be available for all virtual reality and augmented reality/mixed reality systems, from the tethered, fully immersive virtual reality headsets already on the market, to a new generation of untethered HoloLens-like devices.
Windows Holographic builds on the common Windows platform—the NT kernel, the Windows Store, the Edge browser, and the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) APIs—that is collectively called OneCore. To this, it adds a range of components designed for mixed-reality computing—things like a custom shell; human-interaction systems that integrate voice, gaze, and hand gestures; and spatial mapping to build models of the world around you—along with specific APIs to use these capabilities in software, extending the core UWP platform.
Today’s announcement shows Microsoft’s intent to develop Windows Holographic into a broader platform still, running not just on Microsoft’s own hardware, but also that of third parties. With PC-based virtual reality currently split awkwardly between the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets—a split that’s enforced by DRM—an attempt to bridge the gap and unify the hardware can only be a good thing. Bringing AR into the mix is also sensible; AR and VR have areas of significant overlap (such as spatial mapping and gestural control), such that it doesn’t seem sensible to reinvent the wheel for each approach.
The decision to open up Windows Holographic in this way does, however, serve to highlight Microsoft’s peculiar absence in the VR space. The Windows PC is the premier VR platform, but Microsoft itself has so far shown relatively little engagement with VR aside from bundling an Xbox One controller with Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset and the development of a VR version of Minecraft. This omission is particularly striking when it comes to the Xbox; Sony is releasing its own PlayStation VR headset later this year, and Microsoft so far has no real response.
It also raises the question of whether the company will actually ship consumer-grade HoloLens hardware or leave the space entirely to third parties. Given the investment in technology that HoloLens has required, we’d expect at least some kind of first-party offering, but it’s possible that it will take a more Surface-like role—a high-end showcase to push the market in a particular direction—leaving Microsoft’s OEM partners to cater to the wider audience. The company said that it is working with Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, MSI, “and many others” to build VR systems, though in the near term these are likely to be using the regular desktop version of Windows 10.