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HoloLens is and isn't Xbox One's answer to PlayStation 4's virtual reality headset

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Finally, we can stop asking Microsoft's Xbox lead Phil Spencer about virtual reality headsets. "For us, I think this is the area," Spencer told a group of interviewers at yesterday's Windows 10 event. He was responding to whether or not there's also a virtual reality headset in the works at Microsoft, just an hour after the company unveiled HoloLens: a "mixed reality" headset that enables the wearer to see holograms in real life.

For Spencer, HoloLens is both Microsoft's alternate answer to the recent virtual reality explosion and a potential answer to Sony's Project Morpheus headset -- a VR peripheral that works with the PlayStation 4, where HoloLens could work with the Xbox One. "It's very cool. To me there's not a successful consumer electronics device on the planet where gaming is not a primary form of app category on the thing," Spencer said. There's even a "Minecraft-inspired" demo -- which answers that question -- for HoloLens that shows the implications of gaming with holograms. But no demo showed the headset working with the Xbox One in any capacity. Spencer instead talked around that possibility:

"I think gaming will be important. Specific scenarios with the Xbox, we're thinking hard about. People could ask about streaming solutions. Could I use it as a display for my Xbox? We don't have answers to any of those things, but know it's all part of the same organization."

And that's why I say HoloLens both is and isn't an answer to Sony's Project Morpheus, or the Oculus Rift, or even Samsung's Gear VR. It's similarly impressive, and head-mounted, and even delivers some similar experiences, but it's not virtual reality and it's not a head-mounted display. It's... something else.

The fact that HoloLens runs as a standalone device, untethered, is the first major differentiator.

Gaming with HoloLens and Xbox One wouldn't involve a wire the same way the PlayStation 4 does with Morpheus. Regardless of the fact that it runs standalone, HoloLens could aim to offer a companion experience -- a living "second-screen experience," if you will. Sounds a lot better than connecting our tablets and smartphones!

Or imagine a horror game where HoloLens introduced more and more visual chaos into your life as you lost your mind in-game? That sounds goddamn terrifying!

The other major differentiator right now is that HoloLens has its own processing power on board, capable of running Windows 10. Well, since it runs Windows 10, then you can stream your Xbox One games to it, right? Maybe instead of playing Xbox One games on my TV, I play them on my ceiling while lying on my back, with the game projected directly into my vision so only I can see it. Sounds like a pretty solid solution for playing violent ("adult") games with kids in the house.

As for whether HoloLens will take advantage of the Xbox One's horsepower through tethering, that's "clearly on the roadmap" according to Spencer. But I don't know -- the possible use cases without even heading into tethering are incredibly broad and, bizarrely, maybe even more fascinating.

It's very early days for HoloLens -- so much so that its potential far outclasses its delivery at the moment. What is there is full of promise, and it's exciting to see a juggernaut like Microsoft pushing innovation in a completely different direction from the competition. What it will become is another question, but so far Microsoft's made a truly original push into an arena crowded by folks all trying to deliver the same device.

As Spencer put it: "I've always applauded Oculus for what they've created. I think this is something different." That, Mr. Spencer, it is.

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