Let’s be honest, although there’s plenty of exciting stuff that in VR and AR we’re all waiting for, it’s been a while since anyone has announced something that actually feels like it’s changing the game.
The boredom was roundly shattered by none other than Microsoft with its announcement of Windows Mixed Reality.
No Hololens For You
Although the term “mixed reality” is virtually synonymous with the Hololens, this announcement had very little to do with it. At this point the Hololens is an incredible tech demo, but few people could argue that it’s ready for consumers. With an incredibly narrow field of view and a whopping $3000 price tag.
So it’s no surprise that Microsoft is aiming that product at enterprise customers or universities. Windows Mixed Reality, however, is a developer platform for Windows 10 and developers aren’t going to flock to hardware almost no one can afford.
Mixed Reality for the Masses
The Fall Windows Creator update brings with it the software support for Windows Mixed Reality. That also coincides with the release of the hardware you need to make use of it.
Both the headsets and the update launch on October 2017 and HP, Dell, Asus, Lenovo and Acer are set to put compatible headsets up for sale. Not only this, but somehow Microsoft has convinced Valve to officially support Windows Mixed Reality through Steam VR. That must have been a pretty hard sell given that Valve and HTC are direct competitors with the HTC Vive.
It’s really important that Windows Mixed Reality has clinched support from such a major PC gaming platform, because without any actual software to run on these headsets they’re pretty much useless.
Steam’s not the only game in town though, many of the apps that have been developed for the Hololens are likely to find their home on these more traditional HMDs. Perhaps those of us who don’t sleep on a pile of money will get to have a go at the Hololens version of Minecraft.
Getting to Know the Hardware
All the headsets on offer have very similar core designs, but they do differentiate themselves on a cosmetic level. We’ll have to wait until more hands-on reviews come out of the woodwork to know if there are important differences between them, but on paper there’s little to choose between them.
It makes sense that this first generation of Windows Mixed Reality would stick pretty close to the reference design Microsoft cooked up with its partners, so it really could come down to small differences.
Obviously these are not Hololens-like with a projection onto waveguide material. These are traditional VR HMDs with special mixed reality cameras mounted on the front. Making the wearer look like some sort of awesome cyberpunk robot.
All of these headsets use a flip-up design very similar to Sony’s PSVR. I hope that Sony didn’t patent that part of the PSVR design, because there may be some patent friction in the future of these companies. That being said, the flip-up design has proven to be one of the strongest features of the PSVR and it’s good to see it here. Let’s face it, both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are a bit of a pain to put on and remove. A flip-up design means you can switch easily between the virtual and the real.
All of the HMDs on show also use a simple single headband. A much less finicky design than the three-strap velcro setup most VR headsets use.
Keeping Track in a New Way
One thing you won’t find in the box with your mixed reality HMD is some sort of external tracking camera. Nope, they all used something known as “inside out” tracking, which combines the front-cameras with the other onboard sensors to scan and track the room itself. In one fell swoop Microsoft may have done away with the need for both the desk cameras the Oculus uses and the Vive’s Lighthouse system.
Demos of the inside-out tracking seem pretty solid. Not quite as precise as Lighthouse, but once again we have to remember that that is generation one OEM hardware.
Here you can see the Acer developer kit headset using inside-out tracking in action:
It is a little janky here and there, but overall this could be a real game changer for VR. First of all, it means that you can move to another physical space easily, because you don’t have to schlep a bunch of tracking gear with you. With VR-certified laptops now being an everyday thing, that makes these new headsets a true mobile solution. Dare we say that this is the dawn of practical VR that people will use in their everyday life? After all, we’ve been shown how Windows integrates with mixed reality and running applications and being productive can shift from the screen to a virtual space.
Lower (Specification) Expectations
One of the big hang ups people have had with VR since the original systems launched is the high systems requirements. Things sure have changed since then. Sony have shown us that even game console hardware can provide compelling VR and Oculus themselves have lowered the requirements quite a lot thanks to some technical magic.
On top of this, graphics hardware has already advanced to the point where mid-range graphics cards like the GTX 1050 have enough power to make the grade.
The minimum specifications published by Microsoft for this new hardware is actually pretty modest. A GTX 965M, 8GB of RAM and a 4th generation Intel i5 quad core will put you in business.
What’s interesting is that there’s an even lower tier of requirements that will work with the Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated GPU, which will of course require a 7th generation Intel i5. The headset will clock down to 60Hz from 90Hz and you aren’t going to be gaming, but a lot of the productivity VR applications are going to be usable.
Inside the HMD
All the mixed reality HMDs are prices somewhere between $300 and $400, with the consumer models settling in at $350. The developer HMD made by Acer gives us a good idea of the sorts of hardware this platform uses.
The Acer unit has two 1440×1440 LCD screens rated for 90Hz. It has audio out and microphone support with a 3.5mm socket. One downside these have in comparison to something like the Oculus. The Acer unit only has a 95 degree FOV, which is 15 degrees less than the Oculus. However, that’s still above the 90-degree minimum for presence and a LOT wider than the Hololens.
The Time Has Come, Again
VR has been a fantastic curiosity since the launch of the Oculus and Vive, but it hasn’t yet felt like the next revolution in computing. Windows Mixed Reality and this volley of OEM headsets makes it feel like a mainstream consumer technology.
Suddenly the idea that we’ll use an HMD every day as a normal part of working or playing on a computer doesn’t seem that far out. These headsets are affordable, well specified and that inside-out technology makes the whole package incredibly convenient.
We’ve been hearing the refrain that VR is dead for some time now, but Windows Mixed Reality might be what finally silences those naysayers.