Earlier this week Microsoft invited to their Canadian HQ to take a look at their brand new Windows Mixed Reality Headsets. I know not a lot of people out there know what MR is, and why it should be important for gamers, but I think you should pay attention to this because this technology is pretty surprising. Mixed reality is like a mash up of virtual reality and augmented reality. VR is any kind of headset that puts you into a virtual world that isn’t the one currently around you. And AR takes images from the world around you and augments them. So for example my living room wall would blow up and a guy would come through and slap me up, that’s AR. Now what Microsoft is trying to do with their headsets is take both of those and blend them into one giving the consumer the option to choose one or the other.
(image source: The Verge)
When I found out about this new setup for Windows I was interested because they offer room scale just like with the HTC Vive. I’m a big fan of the HTC Vive and have clocked a lot of hours with that headset. The thing with the Vive’s room scale though is that there are sensors that you need to set up in the room, one on either end, for it to work. The exciting thing about Windows Mixed Reality is it doesn’t require any sensors at all. Nothing has to be stuck up on the wall or hang from the ceiling or even mounted on top of your computer. This is because of that AR capable technology they have worked into it. There’s two cameras on the front of the headset and those track where you are and where your controllers are. There is still a process to register how big your play area is before beginning but that was an easy and straightforward process. All you do is trace the outside of your safe area with the headset, walking around the perimeter, and then you’re good to go! Every VR headset I’ve used has been kind of complicated to set up but Microsoft has found a way to make it very easy to use.
The controllers have a sort of halo around them and it’s dotted with LED lights. The cameras in the headset track these LEDs and registers your movement. I was not expecting this to work so well because I was in front of a big, bright window at the time. But no it worked, really well. I’ve had numerous problems with HTC Vive tracking and sometimes have had to stop and adjust the sensors. But when I was using Mixed Reality there were drops sometimes but they were momentary and just came back online on their own. Even though the cameras are only on the front of the headset it could still know where my hands were when I put them behind my head. This is because it communicates with the controllers with bluetooth and just because it can’t see them it doesn’t lose them. I played Super Hot VR and the headset knew where my hands were every moment with missing a beat. What this product line is showing me is that you’re able to get that same room scale experience without a whole bunch of sensors everywhere. Going in I was not expecting the kind of 1:1 immersion that I got. I was expecting something more along the lines of PlayStation VR experience. But Microsoft has found a way to make the immersive room scale experience easy, affordable and able to work on a laptop! Now the laptop we were using in the demo was a pretty powerful gaming laptop but still I’ve never seen VR run on a laptop before so seeing it work with this setup was very nice.
The resolution on the headset was really high and I couldn’t see a screen door effect. The frame rate was really good as well at 90 FPS. I really felt like I could’ve stayed in this environment for a really long time. Because not only was the screen and frame rate good but the headset never felt uncomfortable on my head. I was demoed the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset and it was the best headset I’ve ever worn. It was comfortable, lightweight and when you wanted to pop out of the experience for a bit you just flip up the front of the headset. It really made all of the difference.
The same standard controller design will be used across the lineup of Windows Mixed Reality headsets and I really liked that. What this means is that no matter what manufacturer you buy from you will have the same experience as everyone else. Think about the keyboard and mouse setup, no matter what model you buy the basic interface is the same and your experience interacting with a game is not negatively affected. Same basic principle. These controllers by the way are really well designed. And in terms of batteries they just take every day AA batteries. So if your controller dies during play you don’t have to wait for it to charge, just pop in some fresh batteries and you’re back in the action. Just like with the HTC Vive’s controllers you have buttons and thumb pads but what I really appreciated was the inclusion of thumbsticks! Thumbsticks are so important for games and when they’re not included game developers have to find ways around them and generally I find it doesn’t work very well. In all the experiences I had in Mixed Reality the thumbsticks made a huge difference. They just give a certain tactile feel that you don’t get from other inputs.
Now the games. Right at the top, I got to play Super Hot VR and it works just as well as it does in any other VR headset that I’ve used so far. It was awesome. Then I got to play Space Pirate Trainer and that was really fun. With the ability to use the thumbsticks to switch out weapons it made for a great experience. Then I got to play a completely new experience for VR, and that was Halo Recruit. It was just kind of a shooting gallery game but it was really immersive and really fun. I didn’t think they’d be able to translate the first person aspect of Halo to VR but they really pulled it off. Unfortunately though every experience I did have when it came to games were first person shooters. I did demo some non-FPS experiences and they were more artistic pieces than actual games. They had beautiful graphics and nice audio and they were very cool experiences.
Unfortunately again though, there is currently no AR experiences to try with Windows Mixed Reality. They will be coming down the pipeline at some point but right now it’s all VR experiences. But judging this product as a VR headset alone I think it surpasses the HTC Vive. I know that’s shocking because it’s a more simple and more affordable product but it’s really that good. And the fact these products are going to be available from multiple manufacturers has me excited because with Microsoft behind it they all are using one operating system and they’re all using the same specs and controllers and if they’re competing on price in the next year or so then you’re going to see these headsets lower in price drastically.
This is an exciting time for VR and if Microsoft plays their cards right then I think Windows Mixed Reality might be the answer everyone’s been looking for.