Microsoft will launch its HoloLens 2 Development Edition for $3,500 later this year in its latest effort to kick off mixed-reality experiences, and Epic Games will launch Unreal Engine 4 support for the hardware by the end of May.
This support is only possible because Microsoft executives and Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney called a truce in their war over open platforms. Sweeney called out Microsoft two years ago because he saw it making moves to close off the Windows 10 store and hurt the openness of the PC.
But in an interview this week with GamesBeat, Sweeney said the companies had largely solved their differences with it comes to making choices in support of openness. In particular, Sweeney said he was pleased with how Microsoft is adopting an open ecosystem around the HoloLens 2.
Sweeney signaled this was coming in a two-minute appearance onstage in Barcelona in February, when Microsoft unveiled HoloLens 2. As a result of the thawing of the relationship, Epic Games devoted considerable engineering work to enable high-end gaming and graphics-intensive experiences on the HoloLens 2. Sweeney said it is important for openness to prevail at the beginning of a new platform, such as augmented reality and mixed reality, which the HoloLens 2 will enable.
Unreal Engine 4 will support streaming and native platform integration for HoloLens 2, thanks to an update of the engine that is coming by the end of May. It will enable developers to create high-quality, photorealistic renders and immersive, mixed-reality experiences for solutions spanning architecture, product design, manufacturing, and more.
Microsoft will also provide HoloLens 2 developers with Azure credits and three-month free trials of Unity Pro and the Unity PiXYZ Plugin for computer-aided design data.
Sweeney’s support for HoloLens 2 gives some credibility to Microsoft’s promise to make mixed reality into an open platform for what Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman called the third era of computing at Mobile World Congress.
Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for Microsoft, said in an interview that an example of that openness is the Firefox Reality browser prototype will be coming to HoloLens 2 and the original HoloLens this summer.
How the openness battle was resolved
Sweeney said EPic has been a big believer in the future of immersive 3D with virtual reality and augmented reality.
“In 10 or 15 years, instead of everybody in the world having a smartphone and there being millions of smartphones, we’re all going to have augmented reality hardware, and we’re going to live in a seamless combination of, of the physical reality and augmented reality and it’s going to be really transforming part of our lives for the better,” Sweeney said.
But the concerns about open platforms was one reason Epic didn’t support HoloLens One in Unreal Engine 4. Instead, Microsoft made Unreal Engine 4 available to developers through Github.
“There’s a new generation of Microsoft leaders,” Sweeney said, noting that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, technical fellow Alex Kipman, and Xbox chief Phil Spencer have brought new views to the table. “Microsoft expressed genuine interest in approaching augmented reality as an open platform, rather than a walled garden like iOS, where you can only install apps through their official store, and they take a large fraction of the money.”
In this case, any user would be able to download software from any source, with a lot of competition among stores, on the HoloLens 2.
“I think that is critically important for AR because they are just going to play a more intimate role in our daily lives than any platform before,” Sweeney said. “You know, much more than PCs, smartphones, because this will be some very powerful hardware. And it will have very powerful sensors and it’s going to mean that I mean, really have to be judicious about it.”
That’s why Sweeney got up on stage at Mobile World Congress and offered his wholehearted support, he said. Epic put a lot of engineering resources into HoloLens 2.
“Epic and Microsoft are absolutely committed to working together to make this a great platform, an open platform with the best 3D tools and capabilities widely available to everybody,” he said.
As for Windows itself, Sweeney said he was worried where it was going, but now “every version of Windows that you can buy everywhere in the world continues to be an open platform. And, you know, there’s a growing recognition throughout the whole industry now the open platforms are an important thing and that we have to prioritize ensuring they remain open, and so Epic is incredibly happy.”
He added, “It’s the best thing that could have happened this year, in my view, that we have a great relationship with Microsoft, again, and Microsoft’s whole lineup of is based on these principles.”
He pointed out that Windows can even run a version of Linux on top of it now, and that games like Epic’s Fortnite are interoperable across platforms.
“The Microsoft Store will have the terms Microsoft chooses, but they won’t be the only store. You know, just like on Windows where there’s a Windows Store, there is Steam, there’s Origin.
As for the Xbox One, Sweeny said that consoles are different, as they TV-attached boxes that aren’t general computing platforms.
“You’re not doing spreadsheets there. And so it was a great experience and also generally consoles over their history are subsidized hardware and so the hardware recoup some money from software sales, and Epic is completely satisfied that their economic models are fair,” Sweeney said. “Epic loves Microsoft. Epic hearts Microsoft.”
Microsoft’s evolving view on empathy
Sullivan said Microsoft believes computing is evolving with the “macro computer model,” with a combination of both an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. That means there will be unlimited intelligence in the cloud that all of the devices in the world can connect to.
HoloLens 2 is the kind of device that will bring intelligence to people on the front lines, or workers who have not benefited in the past from the digital revolution. Those include workers like construction workers or repair people or manufacturing employees.
“People benefit when they have open and friction free choices for the tools, and the platforms and the applications and the services that they want to utilize,” Sullivan said. “It’s been a very constructive dialogue. If the principle of openness to be real, then we have to have this open, transparent dialogue. That’s part of the constructive process that has taken place over the last couple of years.”
Sullivan credited Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella for making it clear that Microsoft needs to have empathy for its customers and empower people. HoloLens 2 won’t have, for instance, an exclusive store. Sweeney said Microsoft can sell apps for HoloLens 2, but so can any other store providers.
“We will embrace what previously would have been considered competitive marketplaces to deliver applications to this device, and that’s a pretty profound fundamental shift,” Sullivan said. “Firefox and Unreal Engine 4 coming to HoloLens 2 shows that it ain’t just talk.”