The Xbox Scorpio is set up to be the biggest story at E3 this year. While Microsoft’s rival Sony hasn’t confirmed any plans yet, the leaky rumor mill world we live in hasn’t turned up a peep about anything as exciting as a new console debut. Microsoft wisely let the tech specs out a few weeks ago to give the hardcore hardware fans plenty of forum space to flame away. A games-focused E3 2017 reveal is anticipated, but Microsoft’s greatest Xbox Scorpio coup might not be 4K gaming. It might be plug and play VR.
Acer’s Mixed Reality headset could be one of several plug and play options for Xbox Scorpio.
Today, Microsoft held its annual Microsoft Education event devoted to the ways the company is bringing technology into the classroom. One big takeaway, if you’re thinking about Xbox Scorpio and E3 (and I am), was the lip service paid to Acer’s Windows Mixed Reality Headset. Microsoft really began touting the headset at GDC in March, literally giving the thing away to interested developers. I don’t doubt Microsoft has ambitions to get mixed reality learning games into classrooms, but that represents only a very small fraction of the games industry. There’s only so much money to be made making the AR equivalent of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing .
But in the VR market? Hoo boy. Xbox Scorpio could pick up a lot of buyers if Microsoft unveils an aggressive AR (they call it mixed reality) strategy at E3 2017. Despite lots of media hype about VR the actual sales are still quite low. Combined there are less than 2M units sold worldwide compared to the tens of millions of potential PS4 and PC customers who could purchase a compatible VR set-up if they wanted to. They don’t want to.
VR is cool, but it isn’t easy. Not consumer tech easy, anyway. Even the PSVR, by far the easiest install of the three major headsets currently available, takes about 10-15 minutes out of the box depending on how good your cable management skills are. That might not sound like much but compare that to the time it takes to do anything else with a console and it is a much bigger burden. Consumers want something simple, i.e., “let me plug the damn thing in and then it just works.” Microsoft’s support of the Acer headset might mean exactly that. And not just Acer, either; Microsoft announced it’s working with ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo and 3Glasses for PC headsets, too. Given that Microsoft has been pushing crossover between the game space and the PC space for a while now, it seems natural that development on gaming hardware for the PC could extend to the Xbox Scorpio. Microsoft recently hinted to Gizmodo that would be the case when they spotted an Xbox logo during an Acer demo.
And E3 2017 is the perfect place for an AR spectacle. Microsoft has done it before. In 2015 Microsoft debuted a Hololens presentation that showed a game of Minecraft being played on a coffee table. I saw it live, it was an incredible thing to watch. The promise of VR is escapism, but there’s no escaping the costs, complications and comfort issues involved in transporting yourself to a new, digitized reality. Microsoft’s mixed reality philosophy might be the winning approach. Giving consumers a simpler, smaller gadget that costs less and is easier to use is like Tech Business 101. But the real selling point is that mixed reality is not virtual reality.
It’s clear the demand for virtual reality is tepid at best. There’s a big swath of potential customers who’ve been fed a lot of VR hype but don’t like what they see. Unlike Microsoft’s losing battle with Sony in the console market, the company can come to VR/AR with a product so different that direct comparison is essentially impossible. Why bother fighting competition when there’s a space without any?
The caveat for Microsoft is that any Xbox Scorpio VR or AR or mixed reality E3 2017 presentation needs to hinge on games. So far this console cycle, Microsoft has woefully underperformed when it comes to delivering exclusive content, and even old reliable brands like Halo and Gears of War are feeling stale. E3 2017 will be judged the same as other E3 presentations. Exciting games make for excited gamers, otherwise the only reality Microsoft will find is a harsh one.