Innovation

Microsoft buys Havok and looks to dominate a virtual reality future

With the acquisition of Havok and its 3D physics engine, Microsoft seeks to secure a spot as a major player in the virtual reality marketplace.

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Image: Mark Kaelin

On the outside chance that you haven't heard it from the rest of the technology press yet, let me be the first to tell you that the "next big thing" in technology is virtual reality. If you believe the hyperbole, this time next year we will all be wearing ridiculous VR headsets and living our lives inside a wondrous virtual reality universe.

As you can tell, I remain more than a little skeptical about the VR hype. Microsoft, however, seems to see potential in the upcoming virtual reality revolution. On October 2, 2015, Microsoft announced that it had acquired Havok, the developer of a 3D physics engine used in many popular video games.

Virtual reality sets in

Havok produces the middleware that game developers use to create the physics for whatever game world they are creating. In the past few years, Havok products have become the de facto software for many popular games, including Halo, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Destiny, Dark Souls, and The Elder Scrolls, just to name a few.

Those are some well-known games, and the revenue generated by licensing the Havoc software must be substantial. Microsoft did not reveal how much it paid Intel for Havok, but we can surmise the deal will be lucrative for Microsoft even if virtual reality never takes off.

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Image: Microsoft News

But what if virtual reality does take off? Well, then Microsoft has positioned itself to be a major player in just about every game, world, universe, and even small room developed for virtual reality headsets in the future. Havok is the tool developers will use to depict the physics in whatever VR environment they build, regardless of hardware platform.

Overall, this is a smart strategy for Microsoft. Kudos to them for looking ahead to the potential of a future market.

Reality

While I am skeptical about the hype of virtual reality, as a hardcore gamer, I am also tremendously curious. I think virtual reality that is easy to install, easy to use, and readily accessible would be a great thing for my gaming experience. But I fear the hype has far outpaced the actual technology.

To be sure, the main players in virtual reality hardware like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, and Microsoft's own Hololens certainly appeal to my geeky, gadget-lusting nature. However, the reality is that "virtual reality" is years, not months, away from being a commonplace, use-it-every-day technology.

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Image: Oculus VR

The first hurdle that will have to be overcome is the installed base of personal computers. Even a self-proclaimed hardcore gamer like myself does not have a computer capable of running a VR headset for an actual game. Right now, buying a PC with enough power to make virtual reality even marginally viable will cost consumers well over $1,500. That's a lot of money to spend for an unproven technology without some sort of catalyst, like a must-have game.

We have the proverbial "which came first the chicken or the egg?" problem. Consumers are not likely to spend thousands of dollars for new hardware until they see a reason to do so. And developers are not likely to develop virtual reality applications until they can reasonably predict sales will reach a profitable level. It will take a few years for this conflict to resolve itself.

Bottom line

For Microsoft, the need for consumers to buy new PCs to run VR headsets is more an opportunity than a hurdle. Think about it. It doesn't matter if virtual reality becomes the "next big thing" next year or five years from now; most of those new PCs required to run VR headsets will be running Windows 10 and Microsoft will be receiving license fees from Havok software used in games developed in the meantime, no matter what happens.

Microsoft has placed itself right in the middle of a win-win situation.

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Your thoughts

As a gamer, virtual reality appeals to me, but I am skeptical that anyone can deliver it in the near future. Are you looking forward to VR or do you think it's years off... so why buy into the hype? Or do you believe it is a passing fad, doomed to failure? Tell us what you think in the discussion thread below.

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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