The hardware landscape for virtual reality evolved dramatically in just the last few weeks, with new product announcements from Samsung, Google, and Facebook that span all the primary VR platforms. While the new hardware, and some lower pricing, should help drive consumer awareness around the technology, perhaps the most interesting development was both Microsoft and Facebook demonstrating desktop modes within their VR environments. These demonstrations showed both the promise of productivity in VR and the challenges it faces on the road to broader adoption.
Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Desktop Environment
For the last few months, Microsoft and its hardware partners have been slowly revealing more details about both the Mixed Reality headsets set to ship later this month and the upcoming Windows 10 Fall Creator Update that will roll out to users to enable support of the new hardware. At a recent event in San Francisco, Microsoft announced a new headset from Samsung that will ship in November, which joins products from HP, Lenovo, Dell, and Acer that will ship in October. During that event, Microsoft Fellow Alex Kipman gave attendees a tour of the Cliff House, the VR construct inside Windows 10 where users interact with the OS and their applications.
At the time, it seemed clear to me that one of the obvious advantages Microsoft brought to the table was the ownership of the OS. By having users move within the OS virtually, you decrease the number of times the user must jump between the 3D world of VR-based apps and the 2D world of today’s PC desktop environment. More importantly, the Cliff House also offered a productivity-focused room where you could go and set up a virtual desktop where you utilize your real-world keyboard and mouse to use traditional desktop apps. Essentially a desktop space where your monitor is as wide and as tall as you desire to make it, providing the virtual real estate for a multitasking dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). Microsoft noted at the time that the number of apps running in such a scenario is limited primarily by the PC graphic card’s ability to support them. I couldn’t test the actual desktop environment at that event, but it certainly looked promising.
Facebook Announces Oculus Dash
At this week’s Oculus Connect conference Facebook offered its market response to Microsoft, announcing a permanent price cut to its existing Oculus Rift product ($399), a new standalone VR product called Oculus Go ($199), and additional details about its future Rift-caliber wireless headset code-named Santa Cruz. Just as important, though, was the company’s announcements about updates to its platform (Oculus Core 2) and its primary interface mechanism (Dash) that includes a desktop environment. With these announcements, Facebook rather effectively addressed Microsoft’s perceived advantage by introducing a VR environment that appears, at least from the on-stage demos, to bring many of the same interactive features as Microsoft’s to the Oculus Rift. I wasn’t at the Facebook event and haven’t tested its desktop environment yet, either, but it also looked promising. Whether the company will be able to drive the same level of desktop performance as Microsoft, which obviously has the advantage of controlling the underlying OS, remains to be seen.
The 2D VR Conundrum
One issue that both Microsoft and Facebook face as they push forward with their desktop environment plans is the simple to note but hard to address issue that pretty much 100% of today’s productivity apps are two dimensional. The result is that when you drop into these fancy virtual reality desktops, you’re still going to be looking at a two-dimensional windowed application. And you’re going enter and manipulate data and objects using your real-world keyboard and mouse. What we’re facing here is the mother of all chicken and eggs problems: Today there are very few virtual-reality productivity apps because nobody is working in VR, but because nobody is working in VR few app developers will focus on creating such apps.
One of the primary reasons I’ve been bullish on the long-term prospects of virtual reality (and augmented reality) is that I envision a future where these technologies enable new ways of working. Up until now, humans have largely adapted to the digital tools on offer, from learning to use a qwerty keyboard and mouse to tapping on a smartphone screen filled with icons. VR and AR offer the industry the opportunity to rethink this, to define new interface modes, to create an environment where we do a better job of adapting the tool to the human, acknowledging that one size doesn’t fit all.
Facebook and Microsoft’s continued reliance on the desktop metaphor at this early stage is both completely understandable and a little frustrating. These are the first stops on what will be a long journey. Ultimately, it will be up to us as end users to help guide the platform owners and app developers toward the future we desire. I expect it to be a very interesting ride.