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How Microsoft plans to win VR without making a VR headset

Imagine if the HTC Vive virtual reality headset and Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality system worked together. That's the very idea that Microsoft hopes will inspire a wave of Windows developers.

James Martin/CNET
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Virtual reality is here, but Microsoft's HoloLens is not.

Microsoft doesn't want to build a traditional VR headset, and it doesn't know when its augmented reality (AR) headgear will be ready for market. Until then, Microsoft has a plan. It will use the combined allure of VR and AR to help sell consumers, developers and VR headset manufacturers on its Windows 10 operating system.

The company announced Wednesday at Computex in Taiwan that Windows Holographic, the special version of Windows that powers its HoloLens headset, won't be special anymore. In the near future, Microsoft will bring all its features to the regular versions of Windows 10 and open up the floodgates for headset manufacturers to build their own headsets for computers using Microsoft's latest OS.

By adding software support for VR and AR to Windows 10, Microsoft hopes to make using a headset with your PC as simple as plugging in a printer, according to the company.

(What's the difference between VR and AR? Click here.)

Microsoft has a grand vision for what could happen once those headsets all play nice with Windows, too. They could let people work together across different time zones as if they were in the same room, no matter which headset any particular person is using.

Watch this new Microsoft video:

Even though one person has an HTC Vive, rather than HoloLens, Microsoft's platform will allow all three people to see one another and their surroundings well enough to collaborate on a project. How? When the HoloLens' sensors scan the room, Microsoft's platform can share that scan with the HTC Vive user as well.

Of course, the scenario only really makes sense if at least one person has a totally-not-ready-for-market $3,000 HoloLens Development Kit -- which brings us to VR.

Even if it takes years for a consumer-ready version of the HoloLens to arrive and the idea of VR and AR collaboration to bear fruit, Microsoft can harness the excitement right away. The company is telling developers that if they build Universal Windows Applications for VR headsets right now, those same applications will work on AR headsets like the HoloLens later.

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It's a much better pitch than asking developers to build apps for the HoloLens itself, which may take years to arrive.

"The announcement broadens Windows Holographic from being an interesting but relatively narrow technology, to something which really opens up the opportunities for new usage models and types of applications," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner.

Meanwhile, it allows Microsoft to work its way into the VR market, which researcher IDC estimates will ship 9.6 million units of VR hardware this year, and 64.8 million by 2020.

Though the existing Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets technically plug into Windows PCs, Microsoft doesn't currently benefit as much as you might think. Oculus and Vive developers don't create VR experiences using Microsoft tools, and headset owners don't buy VR software from Microsoft's Windows Store. Facebook (owner of Oculus) and Valve (partner of HTC) have their own storefronts and their own tools, which means they stand to make the money from the VR ecosystem, until or unless someone else comes along.

Microsoft could be that someone, as long as it can convince its partners to rally around Windows instead of Oculus or Valve.

So far, support seems strong: Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, MSI and boutique PC retailers Falcon Northwest, CyberPowerPC and iBuyPower are all committed to Microsoft's idea, according to Microsoft.

Though making headsets might seem risky for those manufacturers right now, it could be a necessity if VR catches on, said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. "If you step back, a VR, AR, MR [mixed reality] headset is a replacement for a display, keyboard, mouse and pen, so it's a huge risk if they don't."

On the off-chance their traditional businesses get disrupted by headsets, they won't want to be left in the cold.

Check out all the news from Computex 2016 here.