Virtual reality is important enough that the next Xbox can’t afford to continue ignoring it.
Virtual reality may not be the industry redefining paradigm shift that many evangelists would have had us believe a half decade ago, but it absolutely is at least part of the future of video games and technology. While expecting VR to replace flat screen TV gaming and media wholesale is a bit of a stretch, it is not at all controversial to expect VR to continue co-existing alongside traditional games and media — even if in a relative niche, like it does right now.
This, of course, is the reason that we see so many company jump headfirst into experimenting with the technology and medium—because it’s an entire untapped market segment that it’s good to get a head start on now, as early as possible. Therefore, we have technology companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Samsung experimenting with delivering VR solutions, and on the games front, we have platforms such as Oculus, SteamVR (in all its forms), and PlayStation VR. We even have Nintendo experimenting with low grade VR, in the guise of the Labo VR kit—and Nintendo is traditionally a company that doesn’t jump on new tech until it is proven. None of this even considers major publishers and developers such as Atlus, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bethesda, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Warner Bros., and more, experimenting with the medium with games and tech demos.
What I am getting at here is that VR is very clearly a crucial component of the future of tech and gaming, and most major gaming companies seem to be fully aware of that, and accounting for that in their plans. The one exception we have is the Xbox platform, which does not currently offer any native VR compatibility at all.
Let’s get some things out of the way first, though—Microsoft as a whole is a great proponent of VR, and its Windows Mixed Reality initiative has been one of the front runners of delivering high end VR at relatively affordable prices. Microsoft also has the HoloLens headset—which is augmented reality, not virtual reality, but again, is very clearly a great demonstration of their commitment to experimenting with this exciting new frontier in technology.
But what Microsoft lacks is any kind of VR support on the Xbox, as a platform. This is puzzling, when even the far more technically handicapped Nintendo Switch supports a form of virtual reality. It’s also infuriating, because back when the Xbox One X was originally announced, then as “Project Scorpio”, Microsoft promised VR support for the console as one of the big bullet points. In fact, no less than Todd Howard of Bethesda Game Studios proclaimed that the Scorpio would be the only console to be able to run Fallout 4 VR.
As we got nearer to the One X’s release, Microsoft started to downplay the VR aspect of the console, and soon, all mention of it was scrubbed from the official website. And sure enough, the Xbox One X doesn’t actually support VR anymore. Maybe it is technically capable of doing so—but there are no VR games or products it runs, leaving the Xbox VR-less.
It makes sense for Microsoft to have decided to forego VR as a marketing point for the Xbox One X, to an extent. For starters, VR software would only have run on the newer console, not the Xbox One or Xbox One S, thus creating software fragmentation within an existing ecosystem. Secondly, in the lead up to the Xbox One X’s release, it wasn’t entirely clear just how well VR was doing. Microsoft probably figured it was best to double down on a clearer message of the system’s core competencies, than muddy the water with a “jack of all trades” routine — which was, after all, the kind of thing that sunk the Xbox One upon its original reveal. So, sure, I get why Microsoft decided to strip Xbox of its VR capability.
For now, anyway—the thing is, the next generation is now around the corner, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose that that was also weighing on Microsoft’s mind when they made this decision. It’s clear the company as a whole does support VR and AR—if they are to have an Xbox system capable of supporting those, is it not better to do it with the next generation Xbox, with the capability baked into the hardware right off the bat, rather than fragmenting the existing (already small) Xbox base, and endangering developer and audience support for an already niche medium along the way?
Which brings us to the central thesis—the next Xbox must support VR. Whether it is as support for the existing Oculus headsets, like the Xbox One X was supposed to do, or a homegrown VR solution, like PlayStation VR for the PS4, there has to be some form of VR compatibility baked into the hardware.
The puzzling thing is that in the Scarlett’s reveal video this E3, VR was not mentioned at all. We have some idea of the system’s hardware, and it does sound like a powerful console, powerful enough to support VR (again, even the Switch can support rudimentary VR, so the Scarlett definitely should be able to). But VR was categorically not a talking point when it was unveiled.
Perhaps Microsoft doesn’t want to overpromise and commit to a feature it hasn’t ironed out the specifics for yet—which was maybe what happened with the Scorpio. In that case, I empathize, and we should maybe start seeing more about the Scarlett’s VR compatibility as we approach E3. But there remains a chance that Microsoft will just choose to not incorporate VR into Xbox, again. Which would be a puzzling and arbitrary segregation of its larger VR initiatives with its larger gaming efforts, all of which do fall under the Xbox brand.
To be clear, Microsoft has been making great pains to divorce Xbox the platform from Xbox the hardware. Playing anywhere, at any time, on your own terms, unfettered by the necessity to own the actual console—that is Microsoft’s utopian ideal for the future of Xbox, and it’s why they are working on initiatives such as Play Anywhere and xCloud. But “anywhere” also includes VR—and while I’m not going to go out and make a call for every Xbox game ever to support VR, to see no games from the Redmond technology giant support the medium other than Minecraft is a direct contradiction of what Microsoft is consciously trying to achieve with its gaming initiatives.
All of which is to say—hopefully, the Scarlett, when it launches, will support VR off the bat, whether an existing VR solution, or a custom made one. Because while VR may not be the future of gaming, it is a future—and Microsoft would do well to not lock Xbox out of that segment of the market, no matter how “niche”. After all, when you put a lot of niches together, they kind of start to add up.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.