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  (Source: YouTube)
Microsoft isn't lookin to choose favorites in spite of its cozy deal with Facebook

At the 2015 E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) made it clear that it wasn't playing favorites, when it came to the much-buzzed-about field of virtual reality (VR) gaming.

I. A Neutral Party?

Ahead of his company's Monday night keynote, Microsoft corporate vice president (CVP) Kudo Tsunoda (@KudoTsunoda) declared that Microsoft will be "working closely with Valve" to ensure SteamVR libraries and its "Vive" head-mounted display (HMD) hardware perform optimally on Windows 10 devices.  That includes gaming PCs and the Xbox (which is expected to receive an upate to the new cross-platform operating system later this year).

The announcement eases some fears.  Given the close relationship between Facebook, Inc. (FB) and Microsoft some feared Valve's rival VR effort would be left for dead (pun!).

While Oculus VR's "Rift" HMD was announced in 2012 and is slated for an early Q1 2016 launch, Valve's VR project -- simmering in secret for years -- is coming out the gates a bit late, officially speaking at least.  Still, boosted by its partnership with Taiwanese smartphone-maker HTC Corp. (TPE:2498), Valve announced in February that it will launch the Vive HMD by "Holiday 2015".  Thus, while Valve Software trails Oculus VR in developer support (given that developer hardware only shipped this spring), it appears poised to actually beat its rival to market.
 
Xbox One Controller

Oculus VR will come bundled with a standard edition Xbox controller. [Image Source: GenGame.net]

Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2B USD in Mar. 2014 and has shown itself to be quite aggressive in defending the coveted acquisition from external threats.  Thus the reaction was somewhat cynical when news broke that Microsoft, who owns a small stake in Facebook, had scored a deal to bundle an Xbox wireless controller with the initially shipped Oculus Rift headsets.

II. Oculus Rift vs. Valve Vive

The bundled controller will be the standard edition Xbox One controller, compatible with both the Xbox One and Windows PCs.  The bundle was announced last Thursday (June 11), at an event highlighted by the unveiling of the "Consumer Edition", the finished Oculus Rift hardware design.

Oculus Rift Consumer Edition

Oculus Rift Consumer Edition

Oculus Rift: Consumer Edition (shipping in Q1 2016)

The finished hardware will support a field of view of roughly 110 degrees.  It boasts a relatively large 7-inch OLED display with a resolution of 2,160x1,200 pixels (1,080x1,200 per eye) -- sufficient for the user to see the scene effectively at 1080p.  The refresh rate of the screen is locked at 90 Hz.

A key aspect of the device is scene control via head direction.  The wearable supports six degrees of freedom for head-tracking, utilizing custom tracking firmware designed by gaming legend John Carmack.  The firmware promises to track at around 1000 Hz. to prevent processing delays that might lead to difficulty making full use of the refresh rate, which is crucial to preventing the "VR motion sickness" experienced in older devices with lower framerates.

The finished hardware is relatively light (at the press event Oculus VR employees could comfortably hold in the palm of their hand).  It communicates over USB 3.1 (type-C).  In order to properly support the framerate requirements, a fairly powerful GPU is required.  Given the cost and the dwindling numbers of hardcore PC gamers, that implies that the Xbox One may be the biggest potential market for the wearable (as the cost of entry -- $400 USD for the console -- is substantially lower than the $1,000+ USD PC rig needed for support).

It's unclear how the Xbox controller bundling will persist.  At its unveil event last week Oculus also showed off "Oculus Touch" (codename: "Half-Moon") a curious new dual set of handheld controllers, designed such that the user holds one joystick-equipped controller in each hand.  The pair of handheld controls are roughly ring shaped.  Oculus was vague on when exactly the new controller would launch and whether it would spell the end to the Xbox One controller bundling.

Oculus Touch (1 of 2)
[Image Source: TechCrunch]

Oculus Rift Touch
[Image Source: TechCrunch]
Oculus Touch
The upcoming Oculus Touch controller (codename: Half Moon)

Oculus VR is demoing the Touch controller prototype at an E3 special area which it dubs the "Toybox".  Reaction from observers has been generally ecstatic. In addition to the controller bundling tie-up, Microsoft has also committed to implementing firmware support for streaming video from your PC or Xbox One to the Oculus Rift HMD.  While Microsoft has not explicitly said the same for Valve's project, the new comments from Tsunoda all but confirm that video streaming to Steam VR Vive HMDs will be support on Windows 10 PCs and on the Xbox One.

HTC Vive

Finer technical details of Valve's more recently announced Vive VR remain a bit hazy at present.  It has been stated that it will use a pair of screens (1,080 x 1,200 pixels) to provide an individual view to each eye, a somewhat different approach than Oculus's strategy of using a single monolithic screen.  Display size, technology (OLED?), and the effective field of view (FOV) remain unknown.
Steam VR
Control is a key focus of the Steam VR APIs and the Vive VR hardware.  The device will utilize Valve's "Lightbox" project, which places the device in a virtual playbox of 15 feet x 15 feet (4.5 meters x 4.5 meters).  The HMD itself will feature 70+ sensors, including a MEMS gyroscope, an accelerometer, and laser position trackers.  The sensor response time is unknown, but Valve is targeting an overall framerate of 90 Hz.

III. HoloLens, Project Morpheus, and More Near Market

Microsoft has an HMD project of its own, dubbed the HoloLens, a project that was announced in Jan. 2015 after five years of secret development and rumors.

Unlike full immersion HMDs like Vive VR and Oculus Rift, the HoloLens is designed to provide a sleek and sophisticated augmented reality (AR) experience.  Hence, it's somewhat akin to a beefier version of Google Inc.'s (GOOG) iconic "Glass Explorer Edition" wearable.  Microsoft brags that its glasses are the "first fully untethered, see-through holographic computer."

HoloLens

With the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft will launch as series of APIs to offer third-party developer support for the device.  The company believes that the device holds promise for a wide variety of consumer and enterprise uses including business, design, education, and recreation.

Tsunoda, a rising star at Microsoft is responsible for a number of key Xbox device teams, as well as the HoloLens effort.  Much intrigue still remains around the HoloLens, particularly on the topic of price.  

HoloLens

Microsoft has said that it will launch the wearable "in the Windows 10 timeframe", which hints at a potential launch this holiday season.  While it has stated that it will target a price point low enough to encourage consumer adoption, an unnamed Microsoft executive reportedly told The New York Times it would be somewhat pricey.  The April report stated:

The product looks as if it will be far more expensive than smartphones, which benefit from subsidies from wireless carriers that lower their initial cost. One current Microsoft executive said HoloLens would cost significantly more than a game console, which runs more than $400.

Even $500-600 USD would be a significant achievement, though, given that Google's Glass Explorer cost a whopping $1,500 USD (Google was rumored to be targeting a mass market price point of $600 USD).

While there's little doubt many gamers will leap at VR offerings from Valve and Oculus -- particularly as the price goes down and pop culture awareness increases -- the fate of AR wearables, such as the HoloLens remains murkier.  Google's trailblazing Glass project, for example, is today stalled after struggling to find a clear objective and facing various image setbacks, which ranged from shocking to somewhat expected.

Google Glass
Google's Glass AR effort has stalled.

Google has hinted we may not have seen the last of Glass, but for now Microsoft AR glasses is the only prominent wearable in its class with a clear-cut release commitment.

In addition to Oculus and Valve's VR offerings, Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) will also be targeting the VR market with its "Project Morpheus" wearable, which it intends to use to complement gameplay on the PlayStation 4.  Announced last year, Sony has been somewhat quiet on the effort, but it appears to still be on track.

Sony recently spoke to the BBC News, showing off a "near final" hardware, and confirming that a H1 2016 launch was planned for the HMD.  The current iteration of Sony's HMD features a 5.7-inch display mounted to provide a 100-degree wide, 1080p resolution view (960 x 1,080 pixels per eye).  The device boasts a faster framerate (120 Hz) than Valve or Oculus's offerings.
 
PS4 Morpheus
Sony's Project Morpheus

The wearable employs a number of LEDs mounted to the headset to track the user's head orientation and requires the PlayStation 4's Camera accessory in order to spot them.  Recent improvements have focused on comfort (i.e. a quick release button for easier removal) and refined tracking (i.e. the number of tracking LEDs was bumped from 6 to 9).

A handful of similar, smaller scale projects also exist, such as the "VR One" wearable from Germany's Carl Zeiss and "VR Glasses" wearable from French electronics giant Archos (EPA:JXR).   Archos is joined by a host of lesser known firms in offering frames which transform your existing smartphone into a crude VR wearable, via special software and APIs (e.g. Google's "Cardboard" API).  Archos' take is priced at around $39 USD thanks to this alternate approach.

South Korea's Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) -- the world's largest smartphone maker -- is also is prepping an offering dubbed Samsung Gear VR which uses hardware from Oculus VR to target smartphone/phablet VR applications

Source: Gamespot





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