Dell believes VR will be as important as gaming to PCs

The company has no immediate plans to build a VR headset but may do so when it sees a market demand

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An attendee to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona tries out a virtual reality headset on Feb. 23, 2016.

Credit: Martyn Williams

Twenty years ago, Frank Azor and three other Alienware founders built and sold their first gaming PCs. Gaming was a niche market at the time, but two decades later, it's booming.

Virtual reality occupies a similar space as gaming for Azor, who is general manager for Alienware and XPS products at Dell. For him, VR is the future of PCs and will be as hot as gaming. Though full of promise, VR is still raw, however.

VR is important for Dell, but Azor doesn't want to rush in and then regret it. He's taking a measured approach to evaluating VR because problems with headsets and user experiences have yet to be resolved.

"There's so much to learn still. We don't want to be haphazard about jumping in and doing something careless and making some mistake," Azor said.

Dell has built Alienware PCs that run VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and the company has made innovative products like backpack PCs for untethered VR. But Azor is not interested in building products unless they resonate with users.

Dell is in no hurry to build a VR headset. Top-rated VR headsets are already available, and Dell prefers partnerships to fill product gaps instead of wasting resources by unnecessarily building products.

"We, at this time, have no intention of creating our own head-mounted display," Azor said. "This could change in the future. At this time we want to see how the [VR] technologies evolve and where are going to be our opportunities for differentiation."

If Dell decides to slap an Alienware logo on a head-mounted display, it will do it using the exacting standards reflected in the gaming PCs, Azor said. The VR headset will have to outperform rivals, be innovative, have an iconic design, and will be built with high-quality standards. Moreover, the headset will need service offerings that make it unique.

Many issues need to be considered before building a headset, Azor said. Dell needs to know what makes a VR headset tick -- whether it's the ergonomics, size and weight, wire-free features, screen resolution, audio quality, industrial design, or cost.

Dell's stance is pragmatic considering several competitors are chasing VR and mixed reality headsets. Lenovo and Asus are making VR headsets, while Acer is partnering with a company called Starbreeze to design and market headsets. HP isn't planning a headset but is building a 3D computing strategy around 3D printers and interactive desktops like the Sprout.

Dell and HP are also selling workstations compatible with VR headsets for content creation.

Intel has shown a mixed reality headset called Project Alloy, which like Microsoft's HoloLens, mixes real worlds with virtual worlds. Intel and Microsoft will release tools for device makers to build headsets based on the Project Alloy design, though there are no takers yet. Azor's team has met with the Microsoft HoloLens group a few times, and the company is interested in the mixed reality usage model.

Dell started off as a company making PCs in a garage but has built up its creative portfolio with products like the Steam Machine, a SteamOS-based gaming console. But it has also experienced miscues with products like netbooks, tablets, and smartphones.

VR, in Azor's eyes, is not an overnight sensation. It'll drive computing and PCs for the next 20 years, he said.

"VR and mixed reality will be as important to our future as gaming and other use cases," Azor said.

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