The realities keep expanding.
This year, if you’re interested in dipping your mind into the creations of virtual reality, you can stop by a store to pick up a headset, but instead of choosing among three to five, you’ll have eight to ten from which to pick.
Mainstays like PlayStation Virtual Reality, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, along with phone-powered headsets from Samsung and Google, are all doing fine, but just two months ago Microsoft rolled out an update to Windows 10 that empowered its own flavor of virtual reality through five more headsets.
Microsoft calls them Windows Mixed Reality immersive headsets, but that’s just the company’s way of saying VR … for now.
I spent the past few weeks testing out all five MR headsets to see how they compare and to help guide those of you interested in picking one up.
Not Holograms, Not Really Mixed Reality Either
Nearly three years ago, Microsoft unveiled something the company called Windows Holographic and the Microsoft HoloLens. The HoloLens is a self-contained computer that injects virtual graphics into the real world, creating an augmented reality for users to experience. So, for instance, a person can use the headset and its transparent visor to turn their office into a home for the dusty landscape of Mars, view a television floating on their wall or play a game of Minecraft on their coffee table. While the headset is impressive, it’s also pricey and not yet ready for general consumer use.
But Microsoft had a plan. Earlier this year, the company changed the name of the backend that helps run HoloLens from Windows Holographic to Windows Mixed Reality. The company also announced that a slew of hardware companies would be releasing the first line of Windows Mixed Reality headsets. In Microsoft’s view, mixed reality is a phrase that encompasses everything from virtual reality to augmented reality to any combination of the two. But this first line of headsets all delivers Microsoft’s brand of virtual reality.
What’s a Windows Mixed Reality Headset?
While the five new headsets are all essentially virtual reality headsets, Microsoft’s Alex Kipman, who heads up the project, sees the differentiator between a regular VR headset and Windows Mixed Reality headsets being one of ease of use and form of tracking.
All of the headsets, which were co-engineered with Microsoft using the technology and software created to power the HoloLens, include six degrees of freedom and inside-out tracking. That means that the headsets know where you are in the real world and that unlike with the PSVR, Vive and Oculus Rift, they don’t need an external camera or peripheral to do that. Instead, the cameras are built into the headsets. So the virtual worlds you inhabit stay put when you move, unlike the experiences found in the phone-powered Gear VR and Google Daydream. The headsets use their cameras to also track special controllers for the system, allowing your hands to make their way into your VR experiences.
To use all five of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets, you simply plug the device into an HDMI port and USB port on your computer. The computer recognizes the headset and launches you into the Windows hub for mixed reality: the Cliff House. While you can use a pair of tracking controllers, you can also use your mouse or a gamepad. The idea is that Microsoft’s headsets deliver plug-and-play VR at a relatively affordable price. And when it works, it works well. But it isn’t without issues.
As can often be the case, setting up new accessories, peripherals and experiences on Windows 10 aren't always without issue. I went through the process on four different computers: my daily-use desktop, a compact Alienware media center PC and two high-end laptops. The set-up was effortless only once, with a loaner gaming laptop from Acer. The other three set-ups ran into issues updating Windows, finding the controller or, in one case, even recognizing the headset. Eventually, I did get all of the systems to work, but it wasn’t nearly as plug-and-play as it could and should have been.
A House on a Cliff
When you drop into the Cliff House, you find yourself inside an open, doorless modern home on a cliff overlooking the ocean. You can wander around the half dozen or so rooms by holding a trigger on your controller and aiming a market to where you want to teleport. Once in the place you want to be, you can look around, or use the controller to rotate your perspective. The home is meant to be a sort of way station between the real world and whatever virtual reality experience in which you want to dive.
The walls of the room come decorated with a web browser, the Microsoft storefront, a media player and photo viewer. You can also grab little 3D decorative items which Microsoft calls holograms, to place around your home. After dropping a few oversized iPhone shots of my dogs on the walls, turning them essentially into massive framed pictures, and watching a few minutes of The Hobbit in an open-air theater, I decided to check out some of the games and apps.
Buying apps and games in the Cliff House is relatively easy. You can browse through a flat display showing everything Microsoft has to offer and then select it, purchase it and download it.
There aren’t very many VR-enabled games yet available in the store, but the ones that are there are impressive. I found myself getting lost inside the virtual pinball arcade of Pinball FX2 VR, where I spent hours leaning over the virtual glass top of original pinball machines, playing games. Being able to look around, lean into and out of the table as I played helped to blur the line between reality and the virtual. Almost more importantly, the game’s stereoscopic audio, which tracks your heads movement and changes to reflect where you are, also pulls you into the experience. That 3D spatial sound is in all of the creations in Windows Mixed Reality, and it’s impressive.
While the native Windows Mixed Reality experiences are sparse, Microsoft is testing out software with Valve that allows you to play any of the VR games found on Steam. This would provide WMR headset owners with access to the same expansive library that HTC Vive owners currently use.
But even with that expanded library of games, this first line-up of headsets doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the technology they allow you to experience. For the most part, they’re all very similar, each dutifully following the spec requirements handed down by Microsoft and doing little to differentiate themselves. While there are a few exceptions, these early Windows MR headsets feel like cookie-cutter tech that is testing the water for Microsoft or setting the stage for what that company may bring down the line.
Each of the headsets uses feature two cables that run to your computer, plugging into HDMI and USB ports. All of the headsets also have a fairly similar design which features a rounded rectangle headset held to your face with a padded, hard-plastic band designed to sit low on the back of your head and high on the front. A plastic dial on the back of all of the headsets is then turned to crank the strap firmly in place. With one odd exception, all of the headsets also have a hinge on the strap that allows you to flip the visor up and out of your way to see what’s going on around you in the real world. Outside of the Samsung model, all of the headsets use two 2.89-inch LCD screens to deliver 1440x1440 resolution to each eye. Samsung’s HMD Odyssey uses two 3.5-inch AMOLED screens to deliver 1440x1600 resolution to each eye.
All of the headsets also feature a 13-foot long cable, though the way that cable is strapped to the headset can cut down on that length a bit. Each of the headsets at this price come with two controllers and the controllers all seem remarkably similar, perhaps even manufactured in the same place.