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Microsoft expands virtual reality ambitions with Google Cardboard rival

cardboardTo try to get programmers to work on VR at a hackathon in Russia, Microsoft promises “Cardboard” devices to test their ideas.

Microsoft is luring developers to a virtual reality hackathon in Russia with the promise of a low-cost, DIY headset that appears to be a challenger to Google Cardboard.

Hackathon participants with successful ideas will be rewarded with “a set of Cardboard” to test their VR applications at the event, which is being held in Moscow on October 17.

Historically, virtual reality has required expensive, dedicated hardware that can do things like track the motions of a person’s head and display 3D imagery. But last year’s debut ofGoogle Cardboard, a flat-pack VR kit that uses a smartphone as a display, made the technology easier to try. The Cardboard headset itself is fairly basic, consisting of cheap cardboard goggles that you fold together and hold up to your eyes. Phone manufacturers can adapt it to fit various Android smartphones.

The premise for Microsoft Cardboard seems similar, but instead of Android, it has been designed for devices running Microsoft’s Windows Phone software. It’s not yet clear what product plans if any the company has for its own cardboard kit, though. Microsoft didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, is just the latest to test the waters of virtual reality, a burgeoning area of technology that has drawn the interest of heavy hitters like Facebook, which spent $1 billion to buy VR firm Oculus, Samsung, Valve and HTC. The technology, which can transport you to an entirely new world through a headset, is seen as one of the next major growth areas.

Microsoft is already working on its own high-end “mixed reality” project HoloLens, which overlays a digital view on top of the real world, but it seems now that the Redmond, Washington-based company also sees value in opening up VR to anyone who owns a Windows Phone device in a cost-effective way.

Given its clout with programmers, Microsoft’s support for VR could help speed up mainstream adoption of the technology, which for decades has failed to fulfill backers’ hopes for widespread success. But that clout is mostly with Windows PC and Xbox gaming programmers, not the smartphones used in cardboard VR kits. With the VR industry still in its infancy, though, it’s not clear yet whether companies will come to dominate the new domain the way Apple and Google are powerful in smartphones, and Microsoft and Sony rule gaming consoles.

Windows Phone has traditionally struggled to compete for market share in a world dominated by Android devices and iPhones, which rely on Apple’s own operating system, iOS. Its struggles have been partly caused by its failure to persuade developers that they should prioritize Windows Phone when working on apps. As a result, Windows Phone devices haven’t offered the same quality and quantity of apps to consumers as their Google- and Apple-powered rivals.

With several other companies investing heavily in virtual reality as the next big trend in technology, VR experiences on Windows Phone could offer Microsoft the opportunity to claw back some ground if it gets in early enough.
In spite of the rush to develop and commercialize VR, some at the technology’s cutting edge say we shouldn’t raise our expectations too high. The first full-blown PC-powered mainstream consumer device to hit the shelves is set to be the much-anticipated Oculus Rift headset from Oculus. But when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Oculus Rift would go on sale to consumers this November, he issued a warning about VR.

“This is going to grow slowly,” he said. “If you think about the arrival of computers or smartphones, the first units shipped did not ship tens of millions in their first year. But they proved an idea and made it real.”

Anyone who has experienced virtual reality for themselves will testify that there is good reason to be excited about VR. But one need only look at the scope of Microsoft’s hackathon — which spans categories including gaming, corporate and education — to see that the full potential of the technology has yet to be fully explored.

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