Last year at E3, Microsoft’s Xbox division announced that a new, more powerful Xbox One console would see the light of day in 2017. The company said the upcoming console, then known as Project Scorpio, would be the most powerful living room gaming console ever made, and it would support native 4K and “high-fidelity VR.”
During Microsoft’s E3 press conference on Saturday, the company revealed the Xbox One X and mentioned its specs, the price, and a bit about what the console can do, but curiously, Microsoft had nothing at all to say about VR.
The Long Game
Microsoft seems to be playing the long game with immersive technology. The company staked a claim in XR when it debuted the HoloLens in January 2015. Later that year, Microsoft revealed a partnership with Oculus to bundle Xbox One controllers with every Oculus Rift headset. At that point, Microsoft was established as a key player in AR (and/or mixed reality, however you want to slice it), but in VR it seemed to be trying to catch the wave however it could.
Then we had E3 2016 and the promise of VR support on a new Xbox console, and many presumed that "support" meant "support for the Rift," because of the two companies' existing relationship. But Microsoft said nothing about the VR hardware that would pair with Project Scorpio. (Now that Oculus has the Touch controllers, and they work with Rift games that don’t offer motion control support, Oculus has little need for the Xbox One gamepad that comes bundled with each headset anyway.)
Between then and now, Microsoft blew open the next phase of its XR endeavors with a curious spate of announcements from WinHEC, followed by details about maintream-level VR HMDs and the PC specs needed to support them. Then came the official debut of the Acer "mixed reality HMD, more details about other HMD hardware, and the promise of a set of motion controllers for the platform.
At that point, it seemed a matter of arithmetic: Surely the mixed reality HMDs would be the hardware supported by the new console, and we assumed that Microsoft would spill the beans when it announced the next Xbox console at E3 2017—and we were right. Mostly.
Microsoft opened its 2017 E3 press conference with the reveal of the Xbox One X (the official name for the console formerly known a Scorpio). During the presentation, Microsoft revealed the detailed specifications of its upcoming console. The company talked about the price of the new hardware. And it revealed that more than 30 partners have signed on to build experiences that take advantage of the console’s beastly performance numbers.
But there was nothing about VR, or AR, or Windows Mixed Reality on the Xbox One X.
The Missed Next Step
We find that puzzling. Microsoft and Sony are usually at each other heels with new hardware innovations. The fact that Microsoft is letting Sony have such a lead with VR is confusing. It’s true that Sony had a major head start with VR technology. The company started developing the PSVR hardware in 2010--shortly after it invented the PlayStation Move controllers. That’s two years before Palmer Luckey landed in the public spotlight with his Oculus Rift prototype and Kickstarter campaign.
Microsoft got into VR late in that respect, but the company has had plenty of time to catch up, and it has on multiple fronts, but it hasn’t bothered on the console. Sony sold nearly 1 million PSVR units in its first four months, so there’s clearly a market and a hunger for this technology. So what gives?
Following the Xbox E3 press conference, Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of Xbox, spoke with The BBC, and his answers left much to be desired. His tone somewhat alluded to the idea that VR on Xbox One is still on the distant horizon.
“This show right here was about consoles. It’s about great games. That’s what’s important to us. But we are believers in mixed reality!” said Spencer. “Mixed reality on the PC is something that we’re focused on. We’re building first party games, and our Mixed Reality platform with our OEM partners continues to roll out. We’ll have more to talk about in the future.”
Spencer went on to say that he doesn’t get many questions about mixed reality “in the living room,” and he offered some speculation as to why. His answer might also be a subtle hint that the Mixed Reality headset for Xbox One X would ultimately be wireless.
“There are just issues with, ‘My TV is across the room, there’s cables hanging out.’ When I do this on my PC, I’m closer to my PC, and that seems to be a much more user-friendly scenario,” said Spencer. “But, I will say we’re all learning. The work that Sony is doing is great. The work that Oculus and HTC are doing; it’s all about learning what mixed reality can be.”
Microsoft is setting itself up to embrace mixed reality on the Xbox platform, but it’s also taking a cautious approach to the concept. Whether this is a wise wait-and-see move, or an indication that Microsoft just hasn't been able to figure our VR and MR on the Xbox yet, or something else, the news from E3 is that there is no VR-on-the-Xbox news.