Microsoft has been going on about mixed reality for years, but until now, the idea of AR and VR working together was nothing more than baseless talk. At its Build Developer Conference this spring, the company showcased a mixed reality demo that, at the least, merged a touch of HoloLens and OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) partner-crafted VR headsets to give virtual reality a refreshingly new look.
Since then, a couple of headsets have shipped to developers, and according to Microsoft, more will be hitting the consumer market as soon as next month. With prices ranging from $299 to $399, the headsets are poised to be effective competition for the hardware offerings from Oculus and HTC.
But what is Windows Mixed Reality? Does it offer anything more than what we’ve already seen? More importantly, will it do much or little to open up VR’s appeal to new users? Read on to find out everything we know so far.
Microsoft Mixed Reality – The tech that was promised
Mixed reality, in Microsoft’s point of view, is a spectrum that has AR and VR on opposite ends steadily approaching towards a pivotal balance. On one side is the physical world augmented with virtual elements, which is where HoloLens comes in, and on the other is a purely virtual world that has little to do with physical reality – facilitated by OEM VR headsets.
At the moment, HoloLens is virtually inaccessible to the typical fun-loving consumer, primarily due to its price tag. So, although Microsoft’s mixed reality vision entailed a perfect balance between AR and VR, the first look into the MR platform merely suggests virtual reality, with a slight touch – if any – of augmented reality.
Despite the apparent confusion, Microsoft isn’t relenting from selling the tech as mixed reality and has seemingly nicked the term away from anyone else that may have wanted to use it. While we may get to see it do something that’s actually “mixed” in the future, the promise of MR remains unfulfilled.
Specs and functionality
Microsoft has entrusted its OEM partners, the same companies that make Windows 10 laptops, with the blueprints for its MR headsets. So far, we’ve seen gadgets from Dell, Acer, HP, Lenovo and Asus, all which feature near-identical specs and features.
For starters, the headsets sport dual 1440 x 1440-pixel LCD screens – one for each eye – with a 95-degree field of view and support for up to 90 frames per second. Also in the package is “inside out” tracking, which means that instead of external sensors, you get two cameras on the headset itself that scan the environment around you.
Another area where Microsoft seems to have handed it to the competition is the design. Not only does the innovative welding-helmet style conveniently eschew the bulky straps seen on the Rift and the Vive, but it also features a flip-up visor which makes it much easier to check your phone or use the mouse in between your favorite VR session.
Microsoft’s MR platform may not do much to justify its mixed reality concept, but its user experience is delightful enough to set it apart from typical PC virtual reality. The setup process, for instance, is much simpler, thanks in huge part to the lack of external sensors. Wearing the headset and walking around your VR space for the cameras to pick up on the environment is all it takes to start playing.
The “home” area is arguably the most impressive part of the whole platform. Essentially a virtual home, Cliff House lets you drag and drop holograms around, pin apps and games to the wall, and walk into a separate cinema room to watch movies and TV shows.
Perhaps the ultimate meta moment is the virtual desktop feature, which lets you maximize your actual desktop screen and control it through the headset. It admittedly sounds rather gimmicky, but don’t be surprised if you spend a good hour playing around with the Windows Universal Apps. It’s an intuitive environment that begs for a look into the future, where VR and MR headsets will likely replicate multi-monitor setups for use while on the go.
Windows Mixed Reality relies a great deal on the motion controllers that come with the headsets. They offer just about the same experience as the Oculus Touch controllers, but delightfully, you won’t need to connect them to any external sensors.
The controllers feature a Windows and menu button, a grip button, an analog stick, a front trigger, and even a little trackpad, which are all great if you’re more inclined towards functionality than ergonomics. Regardless, the Oculus Touch controllers feel far more natural in hand.
On the up side, the controllers’ motion tracking is remarkably accurate, despite the lack of the sensor-based infrared technology you’ll find in the Vive and the Rift.
Mixed Reality vs. Mixed Reality Ultra
The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are stand-out gadgets in their own right, but their premium system requirements make them nothing more than a fantasy purchase for most virtual reality enthusiasts. With Windows Mixed Reality, however, even the Intel HD Graphics GPUs on reasonably priced computers are enough for some decent virtual reality playtime. You will have to contend with 60fps, however, so brace yourself for some upsetting stomach turns, especially if it’s your first VR ride.
If you have the cash to splash on a high-end VR-ready PC, you can choose the MR “ultra” option, which offers smooth and nausea-free 90fps rendering, resulting in an experience that’s more akin to what you’ll get on the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
The headsets – Design variations and pricing
As mentioned earlier, all the Microsoft MR-based headsets we’ve seen thus far are more or less the same gadget branded differently. A few minor differences exist, however, particularly regarding comfort and build quality. While the headsets from Dell and Lenovo are closer to what you’d get from a Vive or Rift, Acer’s offering feels rather cheap and uncomfortable. HP’s headset is simple but polished, and Asus, the most distinct entry in the world of Windows MR, features an exciting 3D polygonal design on the front.
As for the price tags, Acer’s headset is the cheapest of the bunch, retailing at $299, while Asus is the most expensive at $535. Landing in between are Lenovo and Dell, who are selling their headsets for $349, and HP at $329 – $450 if you want to throw in the motion controllers.
Final Word – is Windows Mixed Reality worth it?
Microsoft’s MR hardware has several notable strengths, some of which give the current crop of VR headsets a run for their money. The flip-up design is practical, and the sensor-free tracking is a step closer to the powerful, portable non-tethered headsets of the future. Additionally, Windows 10’s makes proper use of the technology, and the system specs versatility also means you don’t have to through away your budget PC.
On the other hand, the headsets still need a bit of refining to match the quality served up by the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Microsoft’s mixed reality was meant to offer a cheaper alternative to the then pricey options from HTC and Oculus, but now that the two have slashed their prices, it’s quite tough to recommend it at this time.
Nevertheless, with more hardware manufacturers looking to join in, the tech giant’s foray into virtual – sorry, mixed reality – is only going to get more ambitious.