Is Microsoft throttling VR for Xbox?

“When it ships next year we believe it will be the most powerful console ever built,” said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, adding that Scorpio would offer over six teraflops of power.

”This is the console to lead gaming into true 4k and high-fidelity VR.”

That was Phil Spencer at 2016’s E3, talking about the then just announced Project Scorpio (now revealed as the absurdly named Xbox One X). Yet this year’s Microsoft E3 presentation featured no mention of virtual reality for Xbox and the company in fact seemed rather determined to avoid talking about the possibility. So what has changed to turn Xbox away from VR?

Back in 2016, Xbox seemed determined to step into the VR field and even went so far as to say that a VR version of Fallout 4 (which previewed at this year’s Bethesda conference) would appear on the then still codenamed Project Scorpio. Exactly what they planned was unclear, as there was no mention of headsets at the time, but there were several options in front of the Microsoft team.

Having previously pushed hard about their partnership with Oculus, it would have been reasonable to assume that there would be a Rift attuned specifically to the Xbox One X on the way. Alternatively, with PlayStation having sold over a million units of PSVR, it was possible that Microsoft might try to compete by creating their own console virtual reality headset.

Yet this year, talking to the BBC, Phil Spencer said, “I don’t get many questions about console and mixed reality in the living room. I think there’s just issues with my TVs across the room, there are cables hanging out. When I do this on my PC, I’m closer to my PC, that seems to be a much more user friendly scenario today.”

The U-turn seems… strange. From boasting about the potential The Xbox One X had as a virtual reality machine to determinedly avoiding even saying the words ‘virtual reality’ (throughout the interview with the BBC, Spencer is very deliberate about always saying ‘mixed’ rather than ‘virtual’), it seems like word has come down that Xbox is to avoid even discussing console virtual reality.

Instead, the words mixed reality seem to put the focus on HoloLens, their holographic platform. The oddness here is that HoloLens is by no means a consumer product (the development edition retails at $3,000) and it’s almost certainly not a gaming platform. While they have somewhat more consumer friendly versions made by their original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partners, it still doesn’t really make sense as any sort of analogue for their VR competitors.

Again, Spencer talking to the BBC, “We are believers in mixed reality. Mixed reality on the pc is something we’re focused on and building first party games. Our mixed reality platform with our OEM partners continues to rollout, we’ll have more to talk about in the future.”

Images courtesy of Xbox

It certainly sounds like Spencer has been specifically told not to mention virtual reality in relation to Xbox. The question remains, though: why? You’d think a more standard response would either be that “we’re not working on it right now” or “we may have something in the works but we’re not ready to talk about”, not this weird divert into saying virtual reality doesn’t belong on console.

Whether or not they want to talk about it, console VR is a thing. Microsoft presumably has a plan here but it’s hard to work out what it could be, unless they’re saving some big reveal for another convention down the line. We best hope so because if not, they’re deliberately choosing to throttle their console’s ability to branch out.

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Image courtesy of Purdue University/David Blair. Featured image courtesy of NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

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