Microsoft expanding virtual-reality ambitions with Google Cardboard rival?

Company reportedly promises do-it-yourself headset kits to programmers at an upcoming Russian hackathon, to nudge them into testing ideas for virtual-reality apps.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
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Detail of a screenshot that reportedly shows a do it yourself VR headset powered by Windows phones. Thurrott

Microsoft is luring developers to a hackathon in Russia with the promise of a do it yourself virtual-reality headset that appears to be a challenger to Google Cardboard , according to a report.

Hackathon participants with successful ideas will be rewarded with one of the headets to test their VR applications at the event, which is being held in Moscow on October 17, said tech site Thurrott. The site published a screen shot of a webpage it said was promoting the event, though the page appears to have since been taken down. Microsoft didn't respond to a request for comment.

Historically, virtual reality has required expensive, dedicated hardware that can do things like track the motions of a person's head and display 3D imagery. But last year's debut of Google Cardboard, a flat-pack VR kit that uses a smartphone as a display, made the technology easier to try. Users assemble Google's headset from a few specially cut and folded pieces of cardboard, insert a smartphone that runs Cardboard apps, and hold it to up to their eyes. Phone manufacturers can adapt the template to fit various Android smartphones.

The premise for Microsoft's headset seems similar, but instead of Android, the getup has been designed for Lumia devices running Microsoft's Windows Phone software, Thurrott said. It's not yet clear what product plans, if any, Microsoft has for its own DIY headset kit.

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, would be just the latest to test the waters of virtual reality, a burgeoning area of technology that's drawn the interest of heavy hitters like Samsung, Sony, HTC and Facebook, which spent $2 billion to buy VR startup Oculus. The technology, which can transport you to an entirely new world through a headset, is seen as one of next major growth areas in consumer technology.

Microsoft is already working on its own high-end "mixed reality" project, HoloLens, which overlays a digital view on top of the real world. But it could now also see value in opening up VR in a cost-effective way to anyone who owns a Windows Phone device.

Given its clout with programmers, Microsoft could help speed up mainstream adoption of VR, which for decades has failed to fulfill backers' hopes for widespread success. But that clout is mostly with programmers who develop applications for Windows PCs and Xbox gaming consoles and not for the smartphones used in cardboard VR kits. With the virtual-reality industry still in its infancy, though, it's not clear yet whether companies will come to dominate the new realm the way Apple and Google rule smartphones or Microsoft and Sony control gaming consoles.

Windows Phone has traditionally struggled to compete for market share in a world dominated by Android devices and iPhones, which rely on Apple's own operating system, iOS. Its struggles have been caused partly by Microsoft's failure to persuade developers that they should prioritize Windows Phone when working on apps. As a result, Windows Phone devices haven't offered the same quality and quantity of apps to consumers as their Google- and Apple-powered rivals have.

With several other companies investing heavily in virtual reality as the next big trend in technology, VR experiences on Windows Phone could offer Microsoft the opportunity to claw back some ground if it gets in early enough.

In spite of the rush to develop and commercialize VR, some people at the technology's cutting edge say we shouldn't raise our expectations too high.

"This is going to grow slowly," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this month. "If you think about the arrival of computers or smartphones, the first units shipped did not ship tens of millions in their first year. But they proved an idea and made it real."

The Samsung Gear VR, a device made in partnership with Oculus, will become the first widely available VR product when it's released this November.

Correction, 11:21 a.m. PT: This story was updated to reflect that Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, not $1 billion. The story was also updated to reflect that in November Samsung is releasing the Gear VR, not the Oculus Rift.