Introducing Motion Controllers for Windows Mixed Reality

Microsoft have been using gestures like the air tap and bloom when interacting with the HoloLens, but when you’re in a fully occluded VR world, you need to be able to interact with your world without seeing your hands. This is done by using motion controllers, as seen by companies like HTC and Oculus.

Now it’s Microsoft’s turn to show how users are going to interact with the experience provided by Windows Mixed Reality. They are coming later this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on them.

Microsoft have a long history of creating new types of hardware to provide a consistent experience across third party devices. The original Microsoft Mouse was released alongside Windows Word in order to provide a way for users to move their cursor. Like the mouse it is in Microsoft’s interest to allow third parties to create their own motion controllers, but I expect that they’ll all be compatible and have the same technology inside.

Interestingly it seems that Microsoft has decided that they do not need to make these controllers work with the HoloLens – at least not with the existing version. The HoloLens hasn’t seen much in the way of software updates recently, so I won’t rule out the chances of them adding it in the future, but I get the feeling that Microsoft want people to use their hands for that device.

In my opinion we need these controllers for the HoloLens too – the Clicker is not enough… but that’s a story for another time. How do these new controllers work?

Optical Tracking

All of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets provide inside-out tracking – this means that each device will have the sensors required to track the world in the head-mounted display without any additional sensors or tracking devices around the room.

The new Motion Controllers take advantage of this technology to provide six degrees of freedom without any extra wires or mess. This also reduces the complexity of the controller, allowing for a complete tracking solution without being too expensive.

It’s worth mentioning that I assume there is some additional motion tracking in the controllers (so you can put it behind your back, for example), but the truly accurate measurements will be done optically when the headset have a line of sight to the lights around the controller.

Buttons

So what kinds of controls can we expect to have?

  • Windows buttons
  • Menu buttons
  • Trigger buttons
  • Grab buttons
  • Analogue thumbsticks
  • Trackpad surface

Currently, it’s unclear if the trigger and grab buttons are analogue or digital. Analogue buttons would enable the user to gently grab items as well as provide a wide range of trigger actions, much like accelerating in Forza when using an Xbox One controller.

I’m also super interested to know how well the trackpad surface can be used. It seems to have the ability to click, so it can be used much like a primary button too.

Watch the introduction video and see for yourself!

What is Mixed Reality?

I’ve not created a new category for my website for years – but there’s something that I have spending a lot of time working and I need to start writing about: mixed reality.

Mixed reality is a broad umbrella of technologies which enable a real and virtual worlds to be blended together to create a single environment where physical and digital objects interact with each other.

I remember when I was in school I would imagine what it would be like to have a “heads up display” all the time. I’d imagine information that I’d see about people and surroundings, interactive maps giving me directions, reminders about errands I need to run, all sorts of things.

Thanks to science fiction there was no doubt in my mind that it was an inevitability, and it would happen in my life time – but I didn’t really know how or when it would happen.

Fortaleza Leak

Back in 2012 a very interesting image appeared on the internet. It was from an Xbox presentation which mentioned something called Fortaleza Glasses. Rumours of Project Fortaleza had been going for a while, and I followed the subject with great interest.

Linked to Alex Kipman, the creator of the Kinect, it was thought that these glasses would be Microsoft’s move to leap ahead of virtual reality and into some new world of augmented reality. I hope so much that it was true…

HoloLens

..and I remember how amazed I was when I found out it was true.

HoloLens at Home

Well, over the last six months I have not only tried the HoloLens, but spend many hours using it in both professionally and in my home. I’ve been learning how it works, how to develop software for it, and most importantly; I’ve been learning about what it means for the future of software.

This is a whole new kind of user experience, and I believe that mixed reality is the future of how humans will interact with software.

Actiongram

But mixed reality is about experience, not technology. When I say that I believe it is the future of how humans will interact with software – I am not saying that everyone will wear headsets. It won’t be long until there are other ways to project digital items into the physical world.

It breaks down the walls between physical and virtual reality – today this means vision and sound, but the concept of mixed reality goes beyond those senses. As a software architect it excites me to think about the user experiences which everyone in the augmented/virtual/mixed reality community is going to help shape, and I’m to write about what I learn as I go.

Now that I have experienced mixed reality, there’s no going back.

It’s real, it’s getting better all the time, and it’s here to stay.

Upgrading to the Xbox One S

The original Xbox One was announced over two and a half years ago, but I skipped that version and continued to use an Xbox 360 for my living room entertainment.

The new Xbox One S is much smaller and slightly faster than the original, but mostly it is the same. For me this upgrade is perfect timing, as I have been waiting for a hardware refresh before making the switch from the now-discontinued Xbox 360.

Watch the Xbox One S announcement

For people who already have an Xbox One: it may be better to wait for “Project Scorpio” – which will be a significant upgrade to the Xbox coming late 2017. Microsoft have stated that all three iterations of the Xbox One will be compatible with each other – so I am not concerned about being left behind, though “Scorpio” will almost certainly support VR as well.

Watch the Project Scorpio announcement

Hardware

The industrial design of the Xbox One S is absolutely fantastic. Anyone who wasn’t keen on the “VCR” looks of the original Xbox One would agree that Microsoft has gone in a different direction this time.

Xbox One S Design

At the moment the device only comes in white, though I know plenty of people would have liked to see it in black. To me the white polycarbonate really shows off the features of design itself – it would be a lot harder to make out some of the nice touches if the device was just black and in the shadows.

Internally the biggest noticeable improvement is around storage: the disk in the launch edition is 2 TB – that’s four times larger than the disk that shipped with the original Xbox One. You need it too, as games are regularly over 80 GB.

No Kinect in the box this time

In contrast to the original Xbox One launch bundle, the Kinect sensor is not included this time. In fact, it is prohibitive to get the Kinect for the Xbox One S: you’d have to buy both the £80 sensor and a £30 adapter to make it work over USB. The adapter is free if you are upgrading from an original Xbox One – but I am not, and so I will skip this expense for now. However, skipping the Kinect does come at a cost…

At a high level the Kinect provides three main features to the Xbox One:

  • A camera array which supports video and motion capture
  • A microphone array for voice commands as well as chat functionality
  • An infrared transmitter for controlling audio and video equipment

The infrared transmitter is now built in to the front of the Xbox One S. This means I can control my TV without the need for the expensive Kinect add-on.

But the other two features are not included.

I can understand the fact that the camera and motion detection technology is not built in, as most games don’t use it, but I don’t understand why the Xbox One S didn’t include a microphone array by default. Especially as being able to turn on the Xbox with your voice was one of the most impressive features of the Kinect, and the new Cortana assistant requires a microphone to work.

If they can include an infrared transmitter, why didn’t they include a microphone array too? I don’t get it.

Software

The Xbox One S comes pre-loaded with the “Redstone” version of the operating system which matches the Windows 10 Anniversary Update. It includes features like Xbox 360 backwards compatibly, background music, Windows 10’s Universal apps, Cortana, and loads of other tweaks. This update is available for the previous model too, but for me this is a massive leap from the experience provided by the Xbox 360.

Switching between apps is fast

On the Xbox 360 there was no way to pause a game and then watch Netflix for a while, the Xbox One’s software allows this with ease, allowing seamless switching between games, live television, and apps without long loading times.

Being able to use two apps at the same time is supported, but it isn’t as great as I’d like to be. Some applications don’t support snapping at all, and the interface for snapping unintuitive when compared Windows 10.

Xbox One Dashboard

As a Groove Music user the new background audio features work really well – all of the music from my Music Pass and OneDrive collections are available to stream from the same Universal app that I use on my Surface and my Lumia.

While I could access my music through a subpar app on my Xbox 360, I couldn’t multitask at the same time – there was no way I could listen to music on Groove and then go looking for something to watch on Netflix or iPlayer. As an entertainment device this makes a lot of sense, and I’m really pleased they’ve added it to the Xbox One.

Background Audio

Television

In the UK you can use a USB adapter for the Xbox One to gain access to Freeview. In my area of England this includes over a hundred television channels – including 17 in HD. This works without having to do IR blasting to a cable box, and integrates well with Microsoft’s OneGuide software.

I’m not a big television watcher, but now you have to have a TV Licence to watch iPlayer it makes sense to have Freeview as well.

At least this way everything is handled through the Xbox One itself.

Streaming

The Xbox app for Windows includes access to all of the Xbox Live features you’d expect. Including friends, messages, achievements, and (most importantly) game streaming.

Xbox App for Windows

I have been impressed by how well the streaming works – at the medium quality settings there is no noticeable lag, and the compression doesn’t look bad at all.

Personally I have no interest in installing 80 GB games directly on my Surface Book (which I use for software development) but having the option of streaming directly from the Xbox One S means that playing in another room is now an option.

Streaming TV and Games to Surface…
…and HoloLens

And yes, streaming even works with the HoloLens. In the photo below you can see me streaming Halo 5: Guardians onto the wall in my office.

Halo on the HoloLens

More to come

The Xbox One is still early in its life cycle – especially when you consider how much the Xbox 360 changed in the 10 years it was in the market. I still have more to write around the various options for controlling and using the device, and my thoughts on how the software needs to be improved… but that will come another day.

For now I’m pleased to have finally made the jump to the Xbox One platform, and I’m glad I waited for this beautifully designed Xbox One S.