LIVE FROM IFA 2017, BERLIN: Microsoft detailed its work enabling its partners to deliver affordable mixed reality headsets – with a number of products unveiled here this week – as it also highlighted the areas where it sees opportunities for future growth.

Terry Myerson, EVP Windows and devices group engineering (pictured), said some of the key technologies involved come from its own HoloLens augmented reality platform, noting: “It’s incredibly cool to see us taking this bleeding-edge technology and flowing it down to partners, to their headsets, all around the world.”

“In the context of today, the most exciting thing about HoloLens is how it helped us understand what we needed to do to enable our partners to build mixed reality headsets at scale, and do it at these incredibly low price points, so we can democratise mixed reality,” he said.

In HoloLens there are four cameras, which look out from the device to give what is being called “inside out” tracking – removing the need for external cameras looking back at the user to track movement.

“With these partner headsets, which are focused on virtual reality, not augmented reality, we were focused on really costing these down to meet price points. If you look inside Acer’s headset, you’ll see two cameras, not four, which gives a viable proposition for virtual reality. This is really an evolution of the cameras which are in HoloLens – the engineers taking the technology and costing it down to enable these mixed reality headsets,” Myerson said.

Likewise, the screen technology is also informed by HoloLens: “With virtual reality, we didn’t need the same projection technology, we knew we wanted to cost it down to enable an LCD display system. The same technology and techniques we use in HoloLens, a lot of the learnings have been applied to enable this LCD system,” he said.

The inertial measurement unit (IMU), which measures the pitch and yaw of devices, follows the same path: “The hard thing is the calibration, calibrating what the cameras are seeing with what the IMU is reading, so you get that accurate feedback all the way to the software applications. It’s the calibration systems we built for HoloLens that we are now sharing with partners, that enables the calibration of this chip with these cameras and enables these great experiences at its low price-point,” the executive continued.

With a number of Microsoft partners unveiling headsets this week Peter Han, Microsoft’s VP of partner devices and solutions, pointed out areas of differentiation.

“Acer has the special flip hinge which enables easy on-off viewing of mixed reality; Asus has a really unique polygonal design, a special design touch on its headset. Dell offers a distinctive white colour and swappable pads; HP has a quick disconnect cable. And Lenovo has a real focus on comfort,” he said.

Pricing starts from “as low as $299”.

To support mixed reality headsets, Microsoft is pushing two categories of PCs. Windows Mixed Reality, which have integrated graphics and will deliver content at 60 frames per second (fps); and Windows Mixed Reality Ultra, which have discrete graphics and support 90 fps.

“We’ve been working with OEMs to validate the first 37 designs into those two categories, and we are starting more every week. We’re making them available in private briefings with retailers,” Han said.

Opening up on opportunity
Nick Parker, corporate VP, consumer device sales at Microsoft, said there are “four clear areas of opportunity, where we will be working and investing with our partners, to grow jointly our business and our customer success and satisfaction”.

Unsurprisingly, mixed reality was one, but this was joined by “modern PCs”, enabled by the imminent release of Windows 10 Fall Creators Update; gaming, across both PC and Xbox platforms; creating hardware and software opportunities; and IoT, where the combination of Windows and Azure enables “an end-to-end platform which is secure, managed, and reliable that no one else can offer”.

The potential for the Cortana voice assistant was also noted. Parker said: “Today, Cortana is on over 500 million Windows 10 PCs. We’ll see Cortana move to peripherals connected to those PCs, Cortana will work on devices with no screens that connect directly to the intelligent cloud.”