Windows Mixed Reality: Hands-on First Impressions

We were pretty excited by Windows Mixed Reality on paper when the platform was announced. It seemed to fix some of the major problems pioneering products such as the Oculus Rift, but nothing beats trying it out for yourself.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days with one of the Acer Developer models after which I sadly had to give it back to the person who was gracious enough to lend it to me. So here are my hands-on impressions of Windows Mixed Reality.

Work In Progress

I’d like to make it very clear that this is NOT a review of a WMR headset. First of all, I got to play with one of the development kits. These are not meant for consumers and don’t represent the final hardware quality of products that consumers will buy. Already the Samsung Odyssey sports a much nicer design and better specifications than the devkit units.

So I’m going to provide impressions on WMR as a whole and not on the niggles I faced because this is not final hardware. If some of the annoyances are still not fixed in final consumer hardware then we’ll have reason to complain, not before.

What’s in the Box?

There are literally just three items in the box. The HMD itself and two motion controllers. One for the left and another for the right hand. It’s worth noting that the motion controllers each use two AA batteries. Hopefully some consumer iteration with rechargeable lithium batteries will become the norm, but for now it’s a manual process.

Setting it All Up

Compared to my daily-driver Oculus Rift, the Acer HMD is much neater and has fewer things to plug in. It’s also less bulky to boot. It’s definitely the sort of thing you can leave permanently connected to your machine without it getting in the way. It only needs one HDMI and one USB 3 port and you are good to go. Thanks to the internal tracking there’s no need for the desk camera that Oculus currently uses.

When I first plugged the unit into my Windows 10 machine the Windows Mixed Reality software automatically popped up. It took me through an initial setup process. This basically involved checking that all the specifications on your machine are good enough. On my desktop machine which has an AMD R9 390 in it there was a flag indicating it might not be good enough, but it’s actually comfortably within the recommended specs and the drivers were up to date. I also tested on another machine sporting a GTX 1070 where it was given the green light. In both cases, running the same software yielded indistinguishable results.

Next, I had to power on and pair each of the controllers. You do this by removing the battery covers and pressing a little button at the very bottom of each control. The whole process was actually pretty slick and straightforward.

The WMR Portal and then determined that I needed updates. Lots and lots of updates. The firmware in the included motion controllers had to be updated too, but this happened automatically via Bluetooth. The largest hassle was that WMR will not launch unless you have an up-to-date copy of Window 10. On both of my test computers, there was some problem installing the cumulative updates for February 2018, which meant having to pull in the Windows Update Troubleshooter app.

If you get an error code when trying to start up the headset for the first time it’s quite possible that you just need to update Windows 10 to the newest version available.

If all went well all the software should now be sorted, but the actual headset needs to be set up.

Dialling it In

This process was pretty painless. Because the HMD uses “inside-out” tracking with two onboard cameras it’s dead-easy to set up the “safe-zone” where you can move around.

Unlike the Oculus, this system is designed so that you can stand up and move around a bit. The inside-out tracking also makes wall-mounted sensors such as those the Vive use unnecessary.

When you start the calibration process you’re asked to point the HMD at the computer so that it has a starting reference point for front-and-centre. Then you can choose whether you want to have a sitting and standing setup, or one where you move around.

If you choose the “moving around” option you have to trace out the limit of your safe zone. Just keep pointing the HMD at your computer and then walk along the perimeter of the cleared space. Then the software can warn you when you’re getting close to bumping into something.

Firing It Up

With everything finally set up and ready to go, you’re launched straight into what is essentially the front-end for WMR. It’s called the “Cliff House” and it’s a sort of sci-fi slash modern home overlooking a cliff, replete with weird floating islands in the distance.

It’s a pretty basic, but very polished VR environment with plenty of blank walls against which you can place application windows. That’s an important point to touch on for a moment. The Cliff House is a user interface for Windows itself. By pressing the Windows button on either of the motion controllers you can call up your library of apps. If the app you launch is not a VR or MR application then you can place it’s window wherever you like. Leave it floating in space or stick it up against a wall. So you can use the various rooms of the Cliff House for different purposes. I watched an entire episode of The Crown, sitting in the little home theatre section of the Cliff House.

Cliff House is customizable. You can move the decor around and import “holograms” to decorate the place. There’s more neat stuff you can do to personalize your Cliff House, but I didn’t have time to really explore it. It’s almost 100% likely that Microsoft will release alternatives to Cliff House and perhaps even let people design their own WMR interfaces.

Getting Around

Moving around the environment is pretty easy. If you are standing up, you can of course move around a bit within your safe zone. Moving long distances is achieved via teleportation. You just hold either thumbstick of the motion controls forward and then an arc will appear with your future position. Releasing the stick teleports you there. You can also use the stick to turn your viewpoint by 90 degrees. Very useful when seated.

In Cliff House each controller projects a little laser beam that you can use to click on stuff as well as grab and manipulate it. There’s also a touchpad on each controller that lets you scroll through open windows and such.

The Experience

The WMR headsets we’ve seen so far use a single adjustable headband with a visor that can flip up. It’s a lot less fiddly than the three-strap solution used by the Oculus. It’s very comfortable in practice, but I did run into a bit of an issue.

The Oculus evenly distributes pressure around the mask, which means no matter which way you turn your head, the mask is secured. What I found with the WMR headset is that looking down or moving my face muscles too much would lift the mask a little away from my face. Consequently, the focus would be off. It took a while to find a position for the headband that minimized this issue, but I think having a spring orratchetd system to keep the HMD in place might be a good idea in future.

Speaking of focus, it was quite a hassle to get my IPD setting right. There are no physical controls to adjust IPD – interpupillary distance. You have to go into the WMR Portal settings and adjust a slider. On the Oculus you can do this on the fly with a physical control. Luckily I already knew which IPD setting worked best with my Oculus and just used that.

This HMD has a slightly narrower field of view and it did feel a little more confined than my Oculus, but it’s still more than wide enough to feel immersive. When I got the IPD and focus sorted the visuals were crisp.

The tracking on the HMD is really fantastic. I couldn’t test it before the mandatory updates, but as it stands I had no jitter and no lag. The safe zone also stayed rock solid and the controllers tracked with more precision than I could appreciate with the naked eye.

In short, I have no complaints about the general usability of the hardware. Even though this was developer hardware and not final consumer stuff, subjectively it seem ready to roll. When I get my hands on an Odyssey or another as yet unreleased consumer model we’ll see if there’s really a fundamental improvement.

The developer WMR HMDs don’t come with built-in headphones. So I made use of my trusty AKG in-ear units. The positional audio is pretty good, although I think the built-in phones on the Oculus are better. I moved away from my running episode of The Crown in the Cliff House and the sound did change exactly as you’d expect. The positional audio worked a treat too.

The Software

This is where the WMR experience falls down the most. Right now there’s a pretty slim selection of applications in the Windows Store. I also wasn’t able to find any actual mixed reality applications. Everything seemed to be traditional VR for now. Most disappointing is that the various applications meant for the HoloLens have not been ported to the WMR platform yet. It seems like a natural thing, given that this is a Mixed Reality headset, but it seems it’s a little early in the WMR game for those true mixed reality apps.

The thin selection of applications is soothed a little by the fact that Microsoft has released a Steam applications that lets Steam VR recognize this headset. I tested this briefly and once installed Steam VR did pick it up as advertised. It seems that some people do experience performance issues with this integration depending on the game or app in question, but it works well in general.

Final Thoughts

Honestly,  I was mightily impressed with Windows Mixed Reality. Sure, there’s not a lot of actual native content yet, but this is a lot of headset for a very reasonable price. As a VR headset it’s very elegant and as far as I could tell rock solid. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this is the most practical VR setup you can buy today. If developers latch on to the WMR platform it has a serious chance at taking the larger portion of the VR pie. Whether the mixed-reality aspect of it will be as compelling remains to be seen.

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