The Zed Mini Could be Bad News for Windows Mixed Reality

Image Copyright: Stereolabs (Used under Fair Use Rationale)
Image Copyright: Stereolabs (Used under Fair Use Rationale)

Earlier this year we wrote that the release of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets was the biggest news in VR for the year, if not since we first got excited by the Oculus prototypes.

Here were the first truly appealing VR headsets, ones that brought truly mainstream appeal to what has been an expensive niche market. Apart from their design maturity and reasonable prices, these headsets can seamlessly switch between pure VR and mixed-reality applications.

Let’s face it, despite how awesome VR is, compared to AR and MR its mainstream appeal is rather limited. With more and more awesome MR tech demos hitting our inboxes every month it’s easy for consumers to see why they would want a mixed-reality headset, but much harder to convince them of a pure VR investment.

It’s likely that many early adopters of HMDs like the Vive and Oculus felt a bit of buyer’s remorse when WMR headsets became available. Not only because of their more ergonomic nature, but because tapping into the magic of mixed-reality would require an entirely new investment in HMD technology. Hold your horses though, since StereoLabs might have a solution that will put new life into your “old” VR HMD.

Today’s Episode is Brought to You By the Letter ZED

The product in question is the innovative Zed Mini. It’s a stereoscopic camera add-on for HMDs like the Oculus and Vive, infusing their VR-only feature sets with MR abilities.

The hardware itself consists of a camera module that you add-on to your HMD by, well, gluing it on. Yes, it’s not the most elegant solution in the world, but that didn’t stop people from doing the exact same sort of backyard modifications with the Leap Motion.

Anyone can put some cameras in a plastic case, what really matters is the feature set StereoLabs is offering and how it compares to the Windows HMDs.

Money Meet Mouth

The most important feature and the killer selling point of the Windows HMDs is the addition of inside-out tracking. Early VR HMDs need external cameras to accurately track your position within space. Inside-out tracking inverts that, using onboard cameras to track the room itself and then calculate your relative position based on that data. MR is one thing, but inside-out tracking turns a cumbersome HMD into something you actually want to use on a daily basis. If the Zed Mini can really add good inside-out tracking to an Oculus that’s a major coup for the company.

StereoLabs is also offering a dynamic lighting and shadow technology analogous to Microsoft Holographic. You need this is you want your virtual objects to really look like they are part of the real-word scene.

Based on the marketing bumf it looks like you can interact with virtual objects justs using your bare hands, with the Zed Mini taking care of tracking and recognition without the need for extra hardware.

Too Good to Be True?

On paper the Zed Mini looks like the answer owners of existing HMDs have been waiting for, but in the end only hands-on testing will tell whether it can match the very solid Windows platform. Which also brings up another issue. The Windows headsets are attractive not just because of their hardware chops, but because of all the backing Microsoft has received for the software platform. If Windows Mixed Reality becomes the next DirectX of VR then it’s not clear if forking out the rather staunch $450 asking price is worth it in the long run. In fact for that price you can just go ahead and buy an entire Windows HMD instead. Clearly there is still some way to go, but more companies such as StereoLabs should be innovating in this way and it’s always good for the consumer that competition exists.

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