Nomenclature is important. Microsoft has been using the term “Windows Holographic” to describe its mixed reality efforts--which for a time functionally consisted only of the HoloLens and the Holographic shell. Now as the company, along with Intel, pushes in new directions in the XR market, it’s rebranding “Windows Holographic” to “Windows Mixed Reality.”
A Microsoft spokesperson gave Tom’s Hardware a statement that read in full:
Microsoft renamed “Windows Holographic” to “Windows Mixed Reality” to be more encompassing of the company’s broader vision for the platform. We’re unifying the mixed reality ecosystem around a platform that enables shared experiences and interoperability between headsets. By opening up the Windows Mixed Reality platform to the industry at large, we anticipate the growth of holographic apps will make for stronger experiences and better devices for everyone.
One could read into that as much as one likes, but our take is that the new term indeed better matches what Microsoft is trying to do, particularly as it hopes to get more hardware markers into the XR fold.
Microsoft’s Three XR Pillars
Microsoft has three plays in XR. Three pillars, you might call them. One is hardware, vis-a-vis its own HoloLens--a unique device with proprietary components and see-through lenses. You can debate about whether it’s AR or MR, but it most certainly is not VR.
The second pillar involves Microsoft’s efforts with Intel to define hardware specifications for the mainstream HMDs that PC makers are building, as well as the mainstream-level PC specifications needed to run those XR experiences.
The third pillar has to do with operating systems and applications. To that end, Microsoft has its eyes on perhaps the biggest prize: making Windows 10 the primary OS for XR industry-wide. That’s perhaps a little obvious; every PC-connected VR experience currently makes use of Windows. But Android is a big player there as well--most notably for Daydream and Gear VR--and because mobile XR is a key segment of the overall market, Android is a major competitor to Windows.
Perhaps a better way to describe the mobile XR market is to put “mobile” in quotation marks. Typically, when we talk about “mobile” devices, we mean smartphones and tablets, which almost entirely run on Android. However, in XR, “mobile” really refers to the nature of the hardware. Untethered HMDs are going to be of enormous importance to the non-enthusiast space. Think light entertainment and productivity as opposed to hardcore gaming, although some level of “serious” gaming could be part of that. Look no further than Intel’s Project Alloy as evidence of how that could work.
For these untethered HMDs, hardware makers have to make some tough choices. Android is a mature OS, and when you see Qualcomm launching programs aimed at jumpstarting mobile HMD development, you see an Android-based future for XR. But it doesn’t have to mean that, and that’s where Microsoft sees a big opportunity. Why can’t a “mobile” HMD have an x86 chip and run Windows? Further, as we’ve recently learned, Windows should run on ARM processors now (no, not like that).
Windows Mixed Reality: The Linchpin
The linchpin of the whole OS battle is Windows Mixed Reality, formerly known as the Windows Holographic shell. Windows Holographic Mixed Reality is a shell that runs on top of Windows 10. Simply put, it gives you all Universal Apps, plus lots of other content, in a mixed reality environment.
We’ve seen many times how incredibly compelling that is for HoloLens, but it will also be necessary for other types of HMDs. A PC-connected mainstream HMD needs to give you options for productivity. So does any untethered HMD. The brilliant idea behind Windows Mixed Reality is that you can get those Universal Apps and more on a HoloLens-like device with clear lenses, a fully occluded VR HMD, or a mixed reality HMD that can be occluded or can give you visual access to the real world via some kind of camera passthrough. This is not to mention whatever ends up happening with the company's Project Scorpio.
“Windows Holographic” essentially limits the shell, in name if not in practice, to only HoloLens-like devices. Therefore, “Windows Mixed Reality” is a name more befitting Microsoft's plans for XR dominance.