Technically E3, video games’ biggest trade show of the year, starts next Tuesday. That’s when the doors will open at Los Angeles Convention Center and over 500,000 attendees will swarm hundreds of booths filled with the latest video games, consoles, and gaming paraphernalia. But the event really starts Saturday night, when EA, one of the largest game publishers in the world, hosts a press event to announce all its new projects. As Tuesday draws closer more and more huge companies will take the stage at venues all over downtown LA to steal some limelight and make their own big announcements. Personally, I’m going to be focused on Microsoft’s newest Xbox console, which will be announced at a big event on Sunday afternoon (check back for coverage!). I’m hoping that it finally brings some cool tech properly into the mainstream.
If you’re a gaming hardware nerd Microsoft’s console is a big deal. While the company released the adequate Microsoft Xbox One S last year to bring HDR and 4K upscaled games to TVs, it doesn’t come close to delivering genuine 4K gaming. Hell, most Xbox One games don't even run at 1080p. It’s simply not powerful enough. Project Scorpio should be.
At least, that’s what we’ve heard. Microsoft has not been shy about discussing the guts of its next generation console. Two months ago, it made a calculated move to announce the specs exclusively to Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry, including an 8-core custom AMD processor clocked to 2.3Ghz, a GPU with 40 compute units (that’s GPU speak for cores), 12GB of GDDR5 RAM with a throughput of 326GB/s. More recently, Mike Ybarra, Vice President of the Windows and Xbox gaming platforms at Microsoft, has repeatedly taken to Twitter to talk about, and show off, the guts of the new console.
Games that don’t use the full 9GB, the rest of the RAM will be used as a cache (making things load way faster, etc.). All games = better. https://t.co/yZTGOvBJRx
— Mike Ybarra (@XboxQwik) June 8, 2017
Guts talks are great — especially if you’re like me and want to proudly tell someone how fast your new PC build is or how wide the color gamut on your new TV is — but for the vast majority of people, talk of RAM and processors means nothing. Most prospective owners want to know what the hell kind of games are actually going to appear on this thing and what the further convergence of Windows 10 OS and the Xbox OS look like. They want to know how easy it will be to navigate to the Netflix app, and they want to know what Microsoft’s long promised VR solution is going to look like.
And those are the answers we’ll actually get Sunday! (Hopefully.)
Rumors are already flying about how potentially groundbreaking this console will be. Some think it will actually be a Windows 10 box that just happens to game—a highly unlikely prospect after Microsoft tried to position the Xbox One the exact same way and failed so miserably. Others are just pumped for how crazy fast Microsoft’s next gen console sounds.
For me it will be about the VR. On Monday we saw Apple dipping a toe into VR land, but it made it clear it only cares about VR as a way of showing off power and catering to professionals, and while I think VR has amazing potential for professionals, I’m a gamer! I want more incredible experiences like that time I finally learned to empathise with Batman.
Traditionally, catering to gamers like me increases the cost of VR. All three current high-end headsets, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive, require a minimum £350 investment, and much of the reason for that lies in the gorgeous little displays wedged inside. They’re dual 1080p displays that run have a blistering 90Hz refresh rate. As Oculus founder, and former engineer, Jack McCauley noted when we interviewed him a while back, that kind of quality isn’t necessary to mitigate illness. It’s just there to appease gamers. “It absolutely drives up the cost,” he told Gizmodo.
Microsoft is launching its own more affordable VR setup later this year, working with manufacturers like Acer and Lenovo to produce super cheap (£300) headsets that ostensibly provide a super high quality experience. But it needs a successful version of VR on the console if it really wants to win the hearts (and pounds) of consumers.
As with the Playstation Pro, Sony already has an advantage over Microsoft (it’s also reportedly sold twice as many PS4s as Microsoft has sold Xbox Ones), but an affordable headset in the vein of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality setup, paired with that insanely powerful new Xbox, could produce a VR system that is finally the perfect blend of price and performance.
Microsoft teased as much back at Build in early May. While the company didn’t spend a lot of time on VR gaming over the course of its two keynotes, it did pause to announce near Rift-like controllers that will be used with its mixed reality headset. While Microsoft has yet to say what VR on the new Xbox will look like, it isn’t hard to look at the £300 VR developer kit its selling in conjunction with Acer to get a good idea.
Transferring a PC-based virtual reality system to a console would be a daunting prospect for competitors Nintendo and Sony, but Microsoft has the leg up doesn’t it? Microsoft has slowly been uniting its two primary platforms, Windows and Xbox, over the last year so it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that it’s new mixed reality line of headsets and controllers would work with the latest Xbox.
And the Xbox is insanely powerful — with the kind of dedicated graphical processing oomph you’ve have to spend a grand or more on a PC to match. That means it will have the processing power needed to make VR a smooth experience, and a far better one that what you find on the PlayStation at the moment.
While Playstation VR is really fun, and the most accessible VR system available, it’s also a little ugly. Rendering 360 degrees of a world in real time requires a lot of processing power and Sony’s met that challenge with graphics that look last gen. Microsoft, with its ultra powerful new console, might be able able to deliver higher quality graphics on-par with PC-based systems.
Microsoft’s solution will also potentially have a less awkward VR setup. Some PlayStation VR games require two bulbous Move controllers, plus the headset and a camera, that it uses to track the bright lights on the controller and headset. If you’re standing in a super brightly lit room that system falls apart — as I found out last weekend murdering spiders in Farpoint.
Microsoft’s current VR system is just the two controllers and the headset, with every bit of tracking built into the headset itself, all while still leaving it as the lightest VR headset available.
So in my fantasy, Microsoft’s new VR effort would have more realistic graphics and a better headset experience, with the potential to also work, out of the box, with a Windows PC. That’s would be a helluva lot more appealing to potential buyers than anything available now from Sony, HTC, or Oculus. And it’s one major reason that I’m looking forward to Sunday’s event. I’m used to seeing (non-Nintendo) companies show off more powerful consoles with slightly redesigned controllers and improved graphics. I’d much rather see Microsoft finally, fully, embrace the next big step in gaming.