Never Mind the Metaverse, Microsoft Plays for Your Living Room

Recent acquisitions of gaming companies point to an old-fashioned content war

3 min read
Characters from the World of Warcraft, Burning Crusade game.

Characters from the World of Warcraft, Burning Crusade game.

Blizzard Entertainment

Microsoft announced in January it plans to acquire Activision Blizzard for nearly US $70 billion. The deal—the largest ever initiated by a U.S. tech company—was broadly seen as a bet on a metaverse.

It’s true Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella mentioned the metaverse in his official comments on the acquisition. However, Microsoft has so far been reluctant to make a move into consumer artificial/virtual reality, ceding ground to competitors like Sony. Activision Blizzard does nothing to change the story. It’s the sixth-largest entertainment company in the world (by market cap), but it lacks strength in AR, VR, or the metaverse.

Microsoft’s immediate goal is more old-fashioned. It wants to take over your living room.

The company’s obsession with the living room began in 1990s when, for a moment, technology pundits thought the PC might be pushed aside in favor of Internet-connected TV boxes. Microsoft took the threat seriously and partnered with WebTV (which it eventually purchased) to launch a competitor. The idea proved a fad, but Microsoft’s worries remained, paving way for the Xbox in 2001.

Xbox, in many important ways, was not a success. It’s by far the least popular of the three major consoles currently sold. The Xbox One, released in 2013, performed so poorly that Microsoft nearly left the console business. Odds are it’s a Sony PlayStation or Nintendo console, not an Xbox, in your entertainment center.

As a side note, this is why theories that Microsoft’s acquisition will be blocked on antitrust grounds seem wildly off the mark.

The reason for Microsoft’s struggle? Content—or the lack of it. Xbox might be two decades old, but it’s still the newcomer to the console market, and Microsoft’s earlier attempts to create original content ended in the loss of key talent like Ensemble Studios, closed in 2009 after Microsoft purchased it in 2001, and Bungie, which denied Microsoft’s overtures and remained independent, at least for a time. (Sony's overtures, on the other hand, were apparently another matter. More on that below.)

In short, people didn’t buy the Xbox because there wasn’t much to do on it. No Mario or Pokémon, no Spider-Man or Uncharted. Halo, the Xbox brand’s big headliner, stagnated after its creator, Bungie, moved on.

The purchase of Activision Blizzard, along with Microsoft’s smaller (but still sizable) purchase of ZeniMax, shows Xbox boss Phil Spencer has come to terms with this problem. In just two years, Microsoft’s library of entertainment properties has transformed from a graveyard of the dead and dying to a bustling hub with something for everyone, no matter their age or the device they prefer to use.

That device may one day be an AR or VR headset.

At a glance, Facebook’s transformation into Meta made it the front-runner in the race to create a metaverse. Three of every four VR headsets sold last year were from Meta, and Meta has by far the most experience designing and selling consumer headsets.

However, as I warned recently in IEEE Spectrum's pages , there’s not a lot to do with a Meta headset once you own it. The best experiences are small games from indie developers. Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social platform, is unremarkable. Meta will try to grow its content but, with less than 10 million AR or VR headsets shipped in all of 2021, it won’t be easy to attract major partners.

Microsoft, having learned hard lessons after two decades struggling to become a leader in the living room, is taking the other side. It doesn’t have a consumer AR/VR headset. What it does have, thanks to its recent acquisitions, is several world-class entertainment properties. It will first use them to give Sony and Nintendo a true rival in the living room. After that, perhaps Microsoft may, as Nadella indicated, turn its attention to the metaverse. We'll see.

Yet it may be Sony, not Meta, that proves among Microsoft’s stronger competitors. The company’s announcement it will acquire Bungie, also the creator of popular online action game Destiny 2, is the latest in Sony’s string of (relatively) small, surgical acquisitions. While Sony lacks the money to match Microsoft’s breadth, it has a strong roster of beloved franchises, such as God of War, and a history of tight relationships with important independent publishers, like Square Enix. Sony also plans to release a new version of its PlayStation VR headset for the PlayStation 5 console.

These moves by Microsoft and Sony should put Meta on alert. Enjoyable content, not cutting-edge AR/VR hardware, is the key to building a successful metaverse—and that’s exactly what Meta lacks.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.