Culture

Microsoft: Here's the next dimension. Now help us get there

Microsoft enlists "creators" as it dials up its vision that "mixed reality," including 3D and virtual and augmented reality, will be the next era of computing.

Microsoft's rallying cry isn't "Developers! Developers! Developers!" anymore. It's putting the call out to "creators" now, and that means everyone.

At a two-hour event in New York on Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled the new version of Windows 10, called the Creator Update, as well as an updated Surface Book and a jumbo all-in-one PC called the Surface Studio. But the underscoring theme behind the announcements was a big bet on mixed reality, a futuristic combo of holograms, virtual worlds and three-dimensional emoji. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called it the birth of a new medium. But to get there, he's enlisting your help.

"We want the artists, the musicians, the architects, the students, the gamers, the builders, the makers -- everyone who creates, all of us -- to help bring this mixed-reality medium to life," Nadella said.

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The Surface Studio was Microsoft's big product announcement, but the event was more about rallying creative types.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft's pinnacle of mixed reality is Hololens, a contraption you put on your head to overlay digital images on top of the real world. But the company isn't ready to unleash Hololens. In the meantime, Microsoft is laying the groundwork with a collection of hardware and software that puts three-dimensional creation at your fingertips.

"Microsoft has needed a rallying point for a set of efforts around consumer use cases, and it appears to have decided on creativity as the catchphrase for this push," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Between its efforts in virtual and augmented reality, gaming and hardware, it's hoping to enlist you as a foot soldier as it takes on rivals Facebook (and its Oculus VR arm), Amazon's Twitch video game streaming service and Apple's array of PCs.

By addressing needs already met by competitors, Microsoft is hoping it can start tempting you into its own 3D universe. "The key is to get [you] on the applications, get on the platform now," Panos Panay, head of Microsoft's Surface devices, said in an interview.

"You don't have to squint" to see the bridge between Surface products and Hololens once Paint 3D and other programs start to put three-dimensional creation in users' hands, he said.

The challenge is getting people to join the march.

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Apple in its sights

Microsoft's big-ticket item Wednesday was the Surface Studio, which directly takes on Apple's iMac.

Setting it apart from Apple are the touchscreen display that can hinge to become a drafting board, its super-thin 1.3 millimeter screen and a nifty Surface Dial tool that transforms into an interactive control knob when you place it on a computer's face.

The Surface Studio was custom-built as a dream machine for dedicated creators, with the processing power to handle the 3D creation Microsoft is hoping to make mainstream. But "big ticket" is the operative phrase. The Surface Studio starts at $2,999, nearly triple the price of the cheapest iMac.

Even as Nadella proclaimed Microsoft is "democratizing this new medium of mixed reality for everyone," you could debate how accessible a $3,000 to $4,200 piece of hardware really is.

The Dial control knob is the breadcrumb that Microsoft is dropping to lead Studio toward mixed reality. A fat silver disc you place on the screen and turn to unlock interactive controls, the accessory feels like it's training you for the day when you manipulate mixed-reality digital panels in front of you like in "Minority Report."

Priced at $100 and available on November 10, the Dial can scroll, adjust volume, manipulate drawing tools, access shortcuts and manipulate 3D creations.

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The Surface Dial is a new input device.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A bridge to mixed reality

With Hololens still on a tight leash, Microsoft showed off its stepping stones to mixed reality down the line: VR experiences through other makers' headset and 3D creation tools that anybody could use on their standard 2D surfaces.

Promoting "3D for everyone," the Windows 10 Creator Update -- available for free in spring -- allows users to capture images with any device and manipulate them in Paint 3D software, a clear shot over the bow of Photoshop-maker Adobe. In a mixed-reality demo, members of Microsoft's team showed off how to use a phone to scan a sandcastle, preserving a digital 3D copy that can be spun around, stretched and situated inside a beach scene. You can craft custom emoji in Paint 3D and drop in traditional photos of people into the middle, giving them 3D-like depth.

And it is linked to Remix3D.com, an online sharing community building a commonwealth of original 3D creations, like objects made for Minecraft.

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Microsoft will rely on partners to build its virtual reality headsets.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Creators Update also features a game broadcasting service called Beam that takes on Amazon's massive Twitch service. A way to stream gameplay for others to follow along, Beam has social features and an interactive chat to let spectators suggest the next move. And Microsoft announced the ability to create custom eSports tournaments using Arena on Xbox Live, which will take care of administrative work like tracking gameplay and announcing the winner. Both set the stage for remote gameplay in a mixed-reality meeting place.

Microsoft doesn't have a virtual-reality headset of its own, so it's turning to partners HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer to ship headsets that work with its Windows platform. That contrasts the strategy of Facebook's Oculus, HTC's Vive and Sony's Playstation VR, which are racing against each other to become the makers of the dominant headset themselves. And unlike the Oculus Rift ($600) and HTC Vive ($799), prices on the Windows-supported headsets will start at $299.

With innovation in phones petering to a trickle, tech giants are staking out their visions for what will be the dominant tech in the next decade. Google says it's voice control and artificial intelligence. Facebook says its virtual reality. Apple says...well, it hasn't really decided yet, but once it sees what's sticking from its rivals, it'll swoop in and try to make it better.

Microsoft believes mixed reality is the tech of tomorrow. And as Nadella said, "It's up to creators to seize the moment and bring the tech to life."