At the annual BETT edtech show at London's ExCeL arena, mixed and virtual reality was once again being touted as "the next big thing".
Walking through the stands at BETT, it was striking just how many punters had their heads ensconced in one variety of headset or another.
With mixed reality (MR) again taking centre stage at this year's show, BETT 2018 evoked the uncanny sensation that we were covering the same ground as last year.
Indeed, many may be cautious of the technology's previous high-profile failures. Google Glass' ill-fated commercial flop in 2012 looms large as a cautionary tale for the industry.
However, six years later, a multitude of vendors are shrugging off the past and betting that now both the B2B and end-user markets are finally taking mixed and virtual reality (VR) seriously.
And for channel partners specialising in the education vertical, two vendors in particular - Microsoft and Lenovo - were preaching loudly from the pulpit.
Microsoft is well known for its untethered MR offering HoloLens, which has been on the market since 2016.
However, the headset has received several vital updates.
Then there is Microsoft's new Windows Mixed Reality platform, released in October, which come with handheld consoles and fully immersive virtual reality headsets from Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung.
Bringing in the education heavyweights
Microsoft's general manager for education Dan Ayoub insisted that rather than primarily being the preserve of entertainment, MR and VR are on the way to a classroom near you in the short term.
He cited a new high-profile collaboration with the world's largest education firm Pearson as driving an improvement in the content available on the vendor's headsets.
And while exclaiming "content is king", Ayoub argued that improvements in what can be accessed on headsets - rather than just improvements in the tech itself - will make MR a more attractive proposition.
At BETT, Pearson announced that its new curriculum is expected to be ready for schoolchildren to use by the start of the 2018/19 school year.
However, cash-strapped schools may wince at the £2,700 to £4,500 HoloLens price. The Windows Mixed Reality headsets will be the cheaper option for schools, at typically £300 to £500.
Even for the lucky (better-funded) schools, despite earlier trials, it will likely be the first time many teachers, let alone their students, will have had access to this growing trend in immersive technology.
Microsoft's reseller rollout
Microsoft HoloLens has been on the market for almost two years, but only recently picked two European-wide VARs: Econocom, a €2.5bn Belgium-based reseller; and Bechtle, a German-headquartered giant.
Microsoft's director of new devices Leila Martine told CRN that its current channel strategy is to have a limited indirect sales channel with just two VARs to "help test the waters" to determine how customers want to consume mixed and virtual reality.
"We've just expanded to 29 new markets in Europe [but] this is still not a consumer model. A lot of what we're doing right now is working through new models. We're experimenting with rental models and subscription models, and how we can integrate our content providers," she said.
"This is one of the reasons we're excited about working with Econocom and Bechtle to help us to figure out all that before we get to the next stage to go more mainstream and have a broader presence."
"When we're ready to scale, we'll be able to thanks to the insights we'll have gained through our resellers."
"Specifically, we're asking them to ask their customers what content and applications do they want and how do they want that all packaged up?"
However, Martine is cautious to add to Microsoft's partner and reseller roster.
"We're not scaling yet because we're still learning…So we're not looking at new resellers right now."
So has Microsoft's big push on MR finally found a home in the channel? Well, yes, but so far, only for the few.
Upselling with Lenovo
A vendor trying a different, more inclusive strategy, is Lenovo.
Rich Henderson, director of global education solutions, told CRN that his firm has a different strategy to put to resellers.
He said Lenovo can use the novelty interest in the devices as a way to get a foot in the door to sell the rest of the suite.
Lenovo's £399 Explorer MR headset, which runs on Windows Mixed Reality platform, has been available for open distribution since October 2017 to all Lenovo's partners, including CDW and Softcat.
Up next will be Lenovo's Daydream OS virtual reality headset with Google Daydream platform and Play Store, which will hit the market by Q4 2018. Expected to retail for £479, it's a true standalone headset, which basically means it works without a smartphone.
Lenovo's offering will also launch with Lenovo's Mirage Camera, to enable teachers to capture 180-degree fields of view to create their own 3D video content.
Henderson said its message to partners is to use Lenovo's new devices as an upsell opportunity.
"I understand that, in the past, some people may have seen this as a gimmick. But times are changing and genuine interest is growing. I think some of this reluctance to take it seriously was because of there being such limited content, which was only available from publishers. That's why it's important that teachers themselves can create their own content," Henderson said.
"Resellers can use this growing interest almost as a way of getting in, and then speak about all that comes with the headsets. Because they're not meant to be a one-to-one solution for students... I believe in seeing this as a way of getting an invitation in, and then they can talk about their suite of other offerings."
Lenovo's marketing director Phil Oldham elaborated:
"We're getting towards that tipping point in education where the technology is becoming more affordable and it's giving resellers an opportunity to sell a new solutions to schools. Because, whatever devices you're looking at, there are always ancillary devices and services that go with it. For our MR headset, for example, there is a certain type of PC to go with it as well.
"And of course with these products we're looking at ways of commercialising a kit. We're going to announce one in the US soon, which [will] come together with a wireless solution - controls and a tablet. So a reseller is not just selling one bit of kit, they're actually selling a full solution."
Oldham did echo Microsoft's recognition that there is still a lot of uncertainty over how the education market will want to consume MR offerings, in addition to their other technology purchases.
"We are looking into experimentation with rental or subscription purchase models… In fact, we're very conscious that PC as-a-service is a growing sector. We're actively looking into that at the moment and I hope we will have some more news on that soon."
A tipping point for adoption?
When asked why Lenovo had chosen to go straight to open distribution, instead of following Microsoft's limited release, Oldham said he didn't want any of Lenovo's partners to be left behind.
"As a parting message, MR has finally reached a point where it is enjoyable and that translates to opportunities in the education market like never before.
"I think if the BETT show this year is any gauge of what's hot in the technology space, then mixed and virtual reality has to be one of the biggest takeaways from this year… You absolutely can't miss it.
"It's been spoken about in the past, yes, but we're getting to that stage in the curve of adoption where this will start to get into mass rollouts in schools… Just as we've seen with Chromebook in the market, new tech always takes a little bit of time, but the time is now for mixed reality…
"Those not getting on board will regret being left in the dust."
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