This Startup Wants to Bring Microsoft Windows to Virtual Reality
You’ve never experienced Windows until you’ve strapped on a virtual reality headset, opened Excel in a virtual world, and watch as charts and tables open like flowers in front of you.
A startup, Envelop, plans to introduce software to the general public on Friday that converts users’ Microsoft (MSFT) Windows operating systems into a version that works with virtual reality headsets like Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
The software makes Windows virtual reality-ready so that people can create Word documents and surf the web while in virtual reality. The goal is to make virtual reality more user friendly—even for office work—instead of just a playground for marauding monsters and race cars.
Envelop’s so-called “VR shell” does the heavy lifting that morphs the popular Windows into a VR-friendly format, according to Envelop CEO Bob Berry. It’s similar to Google’s (GOOG) recently released “VR shell” for a special developer version of its Chrome mobile browser that will make mobile websites display better in virtual reality through smartphone-powered headsets like the Samsung Gear VR.
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One of the reasons Envelop built the software was to create a way for people who develop virtual reality software, games, and other media to be able do so while wearing a VR headset, explained Berry.
VR is so relatively new beyond the purely experimental that there hasn’t been a standardized interface developed for people to interact with headsets through their computers. The Envelop software enables people to open apps like Microsoft Word, Excel, and web browsers within the headset in a way that mimics how Windows is normally used.
Last week, Fortune tried a demo of Envelop’s software using an Oculus Rift. Wearing the headset with the software turned on created the feeling of being surrounded by several browser windows and programs in a 3-D world.
The software works in conjunction with the camera on desktop monitors so that people can see their hands hover over their keyboards, so they can see their fingers type. People can also use their computer mice to move, click, and open files, just like they would with traditional Windows.
It’s essentially like staring into a giant panorama of computer screens. If you want to move an open browser window to the side, you just click and drag, tilt your head to the left, and drop the window to its new location. Anyone who has used multiple monitors should feel at home, at least somewhat.
Because the setup in virtual reality resembles Windows, it’s pretty easy to navigate without much help. Many VR programs and games are so unfamiliar, moving around can be confusing without explicit instructions.
Looking at an Excel spreadsheet in virtual reality was pretty much like looking at Excel on a desktop—except supersized. Displaying spreadsheet data in a graph form, like a bar graph or something more complex, takes advantage of virtual reality’s 3-D capabilities and makes staring at a pie chart far more exciting than normal.
When viewing a car website that works with Envelop’s software, users can choose a vehicle and be transported into a 3-D model of the car’s interior.
Envelop’s software begs the question: Why do people need a virtual reality version of Windows? What comes after the novelty of opening multiple, gigantic spreadsheets?
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For Berry, it’s creating a new way of computing that is exciting and that opens the door for other developers to build on top of it. That’s why Envelop is releasing the software for free to gain public attention as well as eventually debuting a so-called software development kit that coders can use to build virtual reality apps and modify websites in virtual reality.
Berry said he imagines that the interface would be good for professionals like software developers or financial traders who are accustomed to using multiple computer monitors for their jobs. They’d just have to get used to wearing boxy headsets at their desks all day.
Although Envelop is based in Bellevue, Wash., the company has no relationship with Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. Berry said that Microsoft employees he did not identify have seen the software and “think it’s cool.”
It should be noted that Microsoft recently said that it would make available its custom version of Windows for its own HoloLens augmented reality headset to other companies like Dell, HP (HPQ), and HTC, which makes the HTC Vive device.
Envelop has raised $7.5 million from venture capital firms GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), Madrona Venture Group, and several angel investors.