Nintendo’s success in the mobile space is both impressive and inspiring for a company that has had a rough few years in the gaming sector. With Pokemon Go, investors are very content with the game’s financial success. More importantly, the great cultural impact means it’s only a matter of time before a multitude of activity based augmented reality games start pouring in. Nintendo has effectively set themselves up as the leaders of interactive AR gaming. The ironic part of Nintendo’s success is that Microsoft had attempted a similar cultural impact years ahead of its time in order to sell a technology to consumers. It’s this type of impact that is necessary in order to shape and build the landscape of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.

Learn from the Past

Back in the year 2010, Microsoft had come to the severe realization that general consumers were moving away from the traditional desktop. As a response to regain the throne as the leader in the forefront of technology, Microsoft set out to figuratively merge itself into a one-stop technology services provider. The manifestation of that idea was Windows Phone. For once, Microsoft’s inner divisions worked as one to offer an appealing bundle of Microsoft services under a single mobile operating system. For its time, Windows Phone OS was innovative, fast, fluid, and influential enough to state a paradigm shift in the world of design. Windows Phone would inspire the entire planet and make the flat, thin font design trend a must. Even its competitors, Apple and Google, would adopt similar operating system visual updates. With all of this, Microsoft still needed something to sell the phone. Enter Project Sunburst.

The Impact of System Sellers

The main problem Microsoft had with attracting consumers to the Windows Phone operating system was the lack of killer applications. In the gaming world, these would be known as system sellers. Luckily for Microsoft, they had one edge over the competition: Xbox. Windows Phone came with Xbox integration right out of the box and with it a slew of Xbox-themed games. One of these games was Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst. The game featured many elements that are currently possible on Pokemon Go. For one, similar to the Nintendo game, Sunburst featured real time location tracking. The main objective of the game was to set up tower defenses on a real map displayed by Microsoft’s Bing Maps technology. Players could also host multiple people from around the world and could even interact cooperatively. Sadly, players came to a couple of realizations. First, was that Crackdown isn’t a popular game, at least not in the scale of Pokemon. Secondly, there were so few Windows Phone users which caused the game’s interactive elements to become a barren wasteland.

The Importance of Gaming

Microsoft isn’t Nintendo. They don’t have a mainstream cultural disruption beam like Nintendo has with Pokémon. Microsoft’s lesson, and something Phil Spencer has promoted time and again, is the importance of gaming. It’s even been on record that Phil Spencer wishes to grow the portfolio of intellectual property Xbox has to rival that of Nintendo. Microsoft CEO Sataya Nadalla has reiterated the importance of Xbox to investors who wanted the new CEO to sell off the gaming division. Nadalla and Spencer know the impact of gaming. They know that like Pokemon Go, a single game can sell a new technology. What the investors never realized was that gaming is a driving force of new technologies. If Microsoft or any other tech company is to succeed in introducing a new technology they will have to consider the impact of gaming. Apple and Google realized this immediately after the introduction of Xbox integration in Windows Phones and created dedicated Gaming Services to complement their own operating systems.
Going forward, Microsoft will hedge their bets more carefully. They created the Hololens, an AR capable device that has captivated the imaginations of almost everyone but game developers. They seem to be aware of this and have a backup plan in virtual reality gaming. Because of the lack of support for its augmented reality device, Microsoft will have to look seriously into virtual reality to push its technology. After all, there is a secret war going on right now.

The Secret War

Although many see virtual reality as the beacon of gaming, for a few select companies it’s something much more valuable. Earlier in this article, history was shared on how Microsoft tried to reclaim its position as the tech leader that it had been during the PC age. Sure Microsoft is not exactly in a terrible position as it is right now, but it’s pretty obvious at this point that it has serious competition from Apple and Google. Similarly to Microsoft’s effort to aggressively place its horse in the smartphone race, many companies are getting their horses ready for the VR and AR race.

Valve has wanted to have its own ecosystem for quite a while now with products like Steam Machines and Steam OS. With these campaigns, Valve has sought out to gain independence from Microsoft’s operating system. Unfortunately for Valve, their efforts mirror that of Microsoft’s and Windows Phone. Valve just arrived too late to the race on that front. Luckily, a new arms race has started and the VR AR wars are just about to go underway. On its corner, Valve has followed Microsoft’s old philosophy of the 90’s: never build the hardware or face the burden of manufacture costs. Aligned with HTC, Valve seeks its stake in the future with the HTC Vive. A similar relationship that has shared success is that of Google and Samsung. If we follow the history of the smartphone pioneers it should come to be that Valve creates a VR operating system while HTC rakes in hardware sales. In the end Google ended up with the better position, just like Microsoft did with Windows while IBM and their PC’s took the back seat. It will be interesting to see if Valve and HTC follows this playbook or if HTC brushes up on history and claims a greater stake on the future.

Sony has publicly acknowledged its non-gaming intentions but it seems that many do not see the big picture. So far, Sony is doing extremely well at shaping their gaming narrative. It’s this success that will most likely make Sony market leaders of virtual reality. With the momentum and huge following the PlayStation brand has around the world they could set themselves as leaders for the first wave of VR. The only fault in their plan is that Sony’s VR dreams are tied to the PlayStation. As we saw with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox One, the tied of leadership in gaming consoles can easily shift and with the cycle of console generations being sped up, PlayStations VR plans are set up on a slippery slope. Good thing Sony is thinking of the long term with their Smart Contact Lenses.

Sony Contact Lenses

Oculus, Facebook’s Trojan horse, is also in the VR race. For several years ,Facebook has tried to escape the notion of being stuck as a social media company. They have tried to win a better position in the tech sector by creating its own phone in conjuncture with HTC (whom we see in the VR space again partnered with Valve). Now, Facebook sees its opportunity to win its own ecosystem minus the help of Facebook Home, an old initiative to take over Android from the inside. If the Oculus picks up the pace, it could finally secure a more stable ground to sit on instead of constantly worrying about the fabled doom of the social media site like its predecessor MySpace. Smartly so, Zuckerberg knows the power of gaming and is doing anything he can to acquire game exclusives in hopes to find its own “Pokemon Go” killer app.

Lastly, the current tech titans wish to not fall behind like Microsoft did in the Smartphone wars. Both Apple and Google have their own VR and AR solutions according to CNN and Cnet. Both Google Glass 2 and the mysterious Apple device could prove fatal warriors in the wars to come if they leverage their position as current leaders in technology. With Apple’s golden touch and Google’s worldwide Android army, these two tech titans will be something to look out for.

Last, but certainly not least, we have Microsoft who has three horses in the running: The Hololens, Windows Holographic, and their mysterious Xbox Scorpio virtual reality plans. In order to acquire a large amount of software for the device, Microsoft has created the UWP Universal Windows Platform, which is a framework allowing apps to easily be built between PC, Xbox, and Windows Holographic. This time around, Microsoft wants to solve the app problem before it beings. With UWP, Microsoft should have enough developer clout to have apps ready day one. There is just one fault in this plan: AAA developers aren’t interested in the device that has no track record of success nor ability to run games that can be ported to devices. For developers, building an AR only game with the budget of Halo could be suicide. This is where VR chimes in. VR games can easily be ported to other VR devices should one fail and even then be playable on a PC with regular inputs. Not wanting to fall behind, the Scorpio will indeed support VR devices and for the long term. WinBeta reports Microsoft also have a patent in which a device can switch between VR and AR. Either way, Microsoft will seek to get a large portfolio of software for their devices.

Gaming is the Key for VR and AR

All the major players are in the battlefield. Initial skirmishes have been seen between Facebook’s Oculus Rift and the Valve-backed HTC Vive. The war is just beginning and the big guns are about to be fired in the next year or two, but all of these sides in the war will have one thing in common: they will use gaming as their ammunition. The first one to get it right wins the future of technology for the next 10 years or so. Let’s see who wins and gets to create experiences like this video below.