Mixed reality at Microsoft’s Build Conference (and E3)

This week Microsoft is holding its annual Build developer conference. Yesterday was the Windows Keynote and as has been true for the past few years, there was a segment on Hololens, Microsoft’s augmented reality headset.

What was different about this year is that Microsoft has broadened its horizons some. While in the past it seemed like they were embracing augmented reality and to a certain extent downplaying virtual reality, this year they’re embracing both. In fact they’re backing away from either of these terms and instead talking about mixed reality, a term that encompasses both VR and AR.

As part of the discussion they announced new motion controllers for use with mixed reality, and at the same time they announced that Acer (and eventually other hardware developers) will release a mixed reality bundle this holiday. It’ll include a visor and a pair of the new motion controllers for $399. That’s really cheap.

Microsoft continues to embrace the “inside-out” tracking they first showed on Hololens. Rather than having to use an external camera (as with Playstation VR) or set up sensors (like the Vive uses), Hololens and the Acer visor both put the cameras on the visor itself. By tracking stationary external objects (presumably the corner of a room, or a window or door) the system can extrapolate how the visor is moving, and it can also track the motion controllers.

The upside of this is easy set up and a self-contained experience. Hololens is an untethered experience that you can presumably put on anywhere and use. The Acer visor is tethered but at least doesn’t require any other set up other than plugging it in.

The downside is that the system can only track things you’re looking at. If you think about, say, a tennis game, the system wouldn’t be able to track your hand directly when you reached behind yourself for a serve. (As far as I can tell the visor doesn’t have any backwards facing sensors.) That said, the system probably has a rough idea of where your hand is based on the last place it was “seen” and gyroscope (or some other kind of) data from the controllers.

This year the presenters studiously avoided talking about gaming and mixed reality, instead urging us to look forward to learning more at E3 next month. I assume Microsoft’s E3 press event is going to talk a lot about mixed reality.

If Microsoft is smart, the same visor will work on your Windows PC and your Xbox. That seems like an obvious thing but remember they tried to sell Kinect for Windows as a separate SKU from Kinect for Xbox. I don’t think they’ll make the same mistake again, though.

The $400 price point for the visor and controllers is potentially disruptive (more so if the same visor can be moved from the Xbox to a PC easily). The Playstation VR bundle, which includes the visor, controllers and the camera you need to make is all work, is $500 and it’s currently the cheapest full VR experience (stuff like the Gear VR that uses a cell phone is cheaper, of course). The Acer is $100 less and presumably can be used for AR and VR. The form factor is that of a VR visor but the forward facing cameras mean is should be possible to project the real world into the visor in order to make it “virtually transparent.”

Of course how well this works will depend on the quality of the cameras and the displays inside the visor. If nothing else I hope we get a ‘peekaboo’ feature where we can tap a button and see the world around us without taking the visor off. Helpful for checking to see if that thump you just heard was the dog knocking something over or aliens coming into your house to abduct you. (Hey just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean the aliens AREN’T after me.)

If you’re a developer you can pre-order a devkit that includes just the Acer visor for $299. It ships in August, which seems pretty late if MS expects support for the holiday season.

My expectation for E3 is that Microsoft will announce Project Scorpio bundled with the Acer Mixed Reality set for $799. I’m basing that on my expectation that Project Scorpio alone will be $499, so the bundle will save you $100 off of buying the two items separately, and I’m sure it’ll include some kind of software. Either a game or a demo disk or something. Of course the Mixed Reality bundle (and Project Scorpio) will both be available separately as well.

What I’m not sure of is whether the Acer visor will require Scorpio or if it’ll support the original Xbox One in some scaled down capacity.

I’ve also read some hopeful speculation that Microsoft might surprise us and launch Scorpio earlier than expected…potentially in August. The idea is that they’d want to get the new console out in time for all the big fall releases like Destiny 2. If the Acer dev kit isn’t shipping until August, and the retail version not until (presumably) the November timeframe, I think it makes an August Scorpio launch less likely. I think MS is going to want to introduce these two products at once. They seem pretty serious about succeeding in mixed reality.

I guess we’ll learn more next month!

Console gamers: Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is not for you

Earlier this week Microsoft announced Project Scorpio, a new version of the Xbox One due out in the Fall of 2017. Microsoft made some bold promises: Scorpio will do 4K gaming and be fully VR ready. We’ve seen a variety of reactions from existing Xbox One users. Some (like me) are excited about Scorpio while others feel betrayed by the fact that Scorpio will render their existing Xbox One “obsolete.”

I have a theory: I don’t think Microsoft expects the majority of XB1 owners to upgrade, at least not right away. I think Scorpio is a machine for PC gamers. Here’s how my crackpot theory works.

First, price. Scorpio isn’t going to be a $300 console. In order to do real 4K gaming it’s going to have to be in the $500-$1000 range. Console gamers will clutch their chests in panic at that price but hardcore PC gamers who’re used to spending $400-$500 for a state of the art graphics card upgrade won’t be quite as shocked. My prediction is that, at launch, a base Scorpio will be $749 and a bundle with an Oculus Rift will be $999.

So price is a kind of tangential point. What’s more interesting is the fact that starting this fall many Microsoft-published games will be “Play Everywhere.” What that means is you buy the Xbox One version and you get the Windows 10 version for free. That’s how Microsoft is pitching this now, but of course it works the other way around, too. These games also support cross-platform play. Xbox One and Windows 10 users play on the same servers and your save games will work on both platforms as well.

Now Microsoft can start marketing titles like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 to Windows 10 users. So here I am, Joe PC Master Race, and I buy Forza Horizon 3. Now I need an Xbox Live account, so I sign up for that. And I start playing online and starting building a Friends list as I meet interesting people. [Topic for another post: will Windows 10 players need a paid Xbox Live Gold sub to play online? Anyone know?]

And even though as a PC gamer I don’t really think about it, I’m also starting to build an Xbox One gaming library. As a PC gamer I have no interest in the Xbox One with its feeble innards. It struggles to do 1080P gaming at a decent frame rate! Not a machine for me!

But now here comes Project Scorpio, and now Microsoft is pitching it to me in almost the same way Valve has been pitching Steam Machines. Here’s a way to take your Windows 10 games and play them from the comfort of your couch, at the same framerates and resolutions you’re accustomed to. You already have a library of games you can play on it. You already have a community of friends to play with. All you really need is to buy the box.

Oh and as a bonus you can play 4K Blu-ray discs and the family can watch Netflix and Hulu on it too. And if you’ve always been kind of curious about all the fuss around Halo, you can run that too as long as you have the console anyway. And yes, Scorpio will support mouse and keyboard if you still hate controllers.

Over time of course Scorpio will drop in price and little by little the existing Xbox One audience will upgrade and soon enough, in Microsoft’s ideal scenario, the Xbox One gaming community and the Windows 10 gaming community will become one big happy family buying stuff through the Xbox Store.

So that, I think, is Microsoft’s long-term plan. And I do think it’s a long-term plan. “Play Everywhere” is the first step, Scorpio is the second, but it’s going to be a long-term play to get everyone in the same pool.

Disclaimer: I have no inside knowledge, this is all as much a ‘thought experiment’ as anything. I just don’t know how Microsoft will successfully market a $750 console to console gamers. (Though don’t get me wrong…I’m getting one!) I think PC gamers are their only viable market, at least during the launch window for Scorpio.

Hey Cortana…no not you, the OTHER Cortana

Yesterday Microsoft released details on the next update for the Xbox One. One of the biggest and most anticipated announcements (for me anyway) was bringing Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant, to the Xbox One.

Over the past years I’ve come to really appreciate voice commands. It took awhile to get through that awkward phase where I felt silly talking to a machine but I can’t even remember why it felt silly now. I use voice on the Xbox, on my phone, on our Amazon Echo in the kitchen, and on my computers. Not for everything, but for some things it just makes sense.

So for the most part I’m thrilled that Cortana is coming to the Xbox One. I have just one concern; apparently the trigger phase will be “Hey Cortana” instead of “Xbox.” Microsoft is doing this in order to offer a consistent user experience across devices, but this is one case where a consistent user experience could work against them.

The problem is that at any given moment, there may be as many as three Windows 10 devices in the same room as the Xbox One. My experience is that for voice commands to work they need to be always listening. If you have to press a button or something, you may as well not use them. So most of our Windows 10 devices are in ‘always listen’ mode in terms of Cortana.

For a laptop it’s possible to speak quietly so that when I say “Hey Cortana” only the machine in front of me ‘hears’ me, but the Xbox is across the room. When I say “Hey Cortana I want to play Forza” I’m sure the Xbox will fire up Forza for me, but will my laptop start up Forza Apex, too? Will Angela’s laptop tell her it can’t find a Forza title to play?

Dear Microsoft, your next Cortana update needs to make the system smart enough so we can set trigger names for each of our devices. (I should add that it may be they’ve already thought of this…I took my Xbox One out of the Preview program so I haven’t had any hands-on time with the new feature yet.) I should be able to say Hey Xbox to get something to happen on my Xbox, Hey Surface to get something to happen on my Surface tablet, and so on. Even better, let us set our own names. I’ll name my desktop Bert and my laptop Ernie and be able to trigger Cortana on only the device I want it to activate on.

Please don’t read this as bitching. I’m really happy Cortana is coming to the Xbox even with this one drawback. Right now the Xbox voice commands are way too rigid. I actually can’t say “Xbox play Forza” today. I have to say something like “Xbox, play Forza Motorsport 6” or whatever the official name of the game is. For this reason I don’t launch games via voice on the Xbox currently because it’s too fiddly. Once Cortana rolls out voice commands should feel a bit more conversational; I’m really looking forward to that.

Back and crankier than ever

Going back to the office today, tissue box in one hand, fistful of various cold medications in the other. I should be pleasant to be around. 🙂 I worked from home yesterday, but aside from that I’ve spent the last 3 days pretty much laying on the couch.

Haven’t played any Warhammer (or anything else on the PC). Did play quite a bit of Fable 2, and I watched a lot of old videos I still had on the PS3, including stuff like 1Up’s E3 coverage. Wow, had I ever pushed a lot of that out of my mind. Who else remembers the “You’re in the movies” demo during the Microsoft Press conference? If you don’t, check out this video starting about 3 minutes in:

In less amusing news, a bunch of bills came in, and I felt the sting of all the splurging I did the past month or two, what with the Warhammer CE, Rock Band 2, and a new RB guitar, Hinterlands, LittleBigPlanet, and some non-gaming extravagances. The reality is that its time to tighten my belt. I cut a lot of little things like knocking my Netflix membership down a couple of notches, gonna be more careful about grocery shopping, dumping some extra cable services and the like. All these little cuts add up.

But I realized that I simply cannot justify carrying two game subscriptions at once. It’s so easy to turn these things on and off that it makes more fiscal sense to alternate months. I’ve promised Angela that I’d play EQ2 with her when the new expansion comes out, which is I believe Nov. 20th. So I’ll be suspending my Warhammer Online account after this month runs out (I think on Nov. 18th). I hate to do it since I believe in the game and I’m sort of voting against it by doing this, not to mention all the asshat smug bloggers who’re taking such joy out of finding out that supporters of the game are leaving it.

But I still have almost two weeks to enjoy Warhammer and CoW, so if you read this JoBildo, don’t make me an alumni yet!! And I’m going to look at it this way; when I go back after a month or two of EQ2, the game will be even better than it is now. So that’s something to look forward to!

Nintendo Customer Support FTW!

Somewhere around July 23rd, our Wii Fit Balance Board started acting wonky, giving crazy readings and drawing straight diagonal ‘COB traces’. I futzed with it for a couple of days, but on Friday, July 25th we called Nintendo to request service.

Later that day we were emailed a pre-paid FedEx Ground shipping label. On Saturday we packed up the Balance Board and on Monday, July 28th I dropped it off at a Kinko’s FedEx Center. It arrived on July 29th (a bit of luck there, we’re in MA and the repair center is in NY so it didn’t have far to travel). By July 30th there was a notice in the Repair System that they would replace the board but it was currently back-ordered.

In spite of this, a new board was shipped via UPS Blue (2nd day air) on July 31st, a Thursday. Today, Monday, August 4th, the new board arrived. It works perfectly. And cost us nothing beyond some packing tape (we sent it back in the original WiiFit box, wrapping it in flattened out brown-paper shopping bags).

I’ve been “fortunate” enough to have to pay to have both an XBox 360 and a PS3 repaired. It took Microsoft almost 5 weeks to turn around the XBox ($100) repair, and it took Sony 3 weeks to turn around the ($150) PS3 repair. And in neither case was anything repaired…the old unit was just swapped out for a refurb.

So I have to rate Nintendo as easily the best of the ‘big three’ when it comes to Customer Service. The exchange was handled swiftly and with no hassles whatsoever.

And we’ve got our little friend back. Oh, how we’ve missed our Balance Board Buddy!

E3 ’08: Round 1: Microsoft

Microsoft’s Press Conference didn’t have a lot of new announcements for hardcore gamers who spend much time surfing around, but what news they did break really busted Sony in the chops.

First, Fallout 3 will have “exclusive downloadable content” for the XBox 360 and Games For Windows version of the game. PS3 owners will have to do without, same as they’re going to have to do without when the GTA IV DLC comes along.

But the huge news was that Final Fantasy XIII, long assumed to be a PS3 exclusive and a major system seller, will come out for the XBox 360 on the same day as the PS3 version in English-speaking areas (the Japanese version remains a PS3 exclusive).

There are lots of other announcements made of course. Fable 2 is finished. Netflix’s “Watch Now” is coming to XBox Live (for Gold Members). Incredibly cheesy looking avatars are being added because, presumably, of Mii-envy. Lots of “We really want to get some of that casual market that Nintendo is printing cash from” announcements.

Sony needs to pull off a miracle with its press conference tomorrow. As it stands now, as amazing as Little Big Planet looks, I don’t think it, Resistance 2, and Killzone 2 are enough to keep momentum going. And the XBox 720 is only a couple years away.