Hands-On with Windows Mixed Reality

Posted on October 17, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 24 Comments

Hands-On with Windows Mixed Reality

I’ve long understood that Windows Mixed Reality was just a fancy term for what the rest of us call virtual reality, or VR. But after finally experiencing this platform recently, I feel I now have a better understanding of how well it will perform in the market.

As a recap, Windows Mixed Reality is Microsoft’s brand for VR platform experiences on Windows 10. With this name, the firm is drawing a tenuous connection between basic VR and true augmented reality (AR), in which 3D objects, which Microsoft incorrectly calls holograms, can visually appear—through a viewfinder—on top of, or within, the real world. But again, Windows Mixed Reality is just VR. There are no AR elements at all.

Microsoft’s AR platform, called HoloLens, is very sophisticated and very expensive, but it’s also limited to niche—or, to be kinder, vertical—industry solutions. There are, of course, some entertainment applications, but let’s face it, no one is spending $3000 so they can watch a movie or play a limited game while watching through a tiny mailslot-style view port while wearing a heavy, if untethered, headset.

So what’s the tie-up between Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens? There are two.

First, Windows Mixed Reality headsets—which are made by PC makers like Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and, soon, others—incorporate one important feature from HoloLens: On-headset sensors that eliminate the need to place external sensors—what Microsoft calls “inside-out tracking”—on tripods or connected to the wall of a room, to help the system “place” the user in virtual scenes. This is a big deal in some ways, but it’s really just an evolutionary step forward that rival VR platforms will be able to match.

Second, Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens are, sort of, the same platform, which means that developers will have an easier time creating apps that can run on both. This is perhaps an unsophisticated view, but to put this simply, Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens are “the same platform” in the same way that Windows 10 for PCs, Windows Mobile, and Xbox One are “the same platform.” That is, they absolutely share some technical underpinnings, and they have shared APIs that developers can use. But it is as fair to point out, I think, that the differences between each of these are arguably what make them special and important.

Speaking of which, the differences between Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens are numerous, even looking beyond the basic differences between VR and AR.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets hide, or occlude, the real world: You’re just looking at a fully virtual environment. HoloLens, by contrast, lets you see the world around you and it projects 3D objects—“holograms”—over this view.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets are tethered to a PC, and they require a fairly hefty PC for the best performance. HoloLens, by contrast, is a standalone system and is untethered.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets work like any VR system. That is, your position is being tracked by sensors, but because your view is occluded, you aren’t going to walk around. With HoloLens, you could walk around even a large room since you can see the real world.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets are dramatically less expensive than HoloLens: In fact, they start at just $399, which is about one-eighth the cost of a HoloLens. Both Windows Mixed Reality and HoloLens headsets require motion controllers, and that can add to the price, too, I guess. But whatever: Windows Mixed Reality is more affordable. It’s a consumer product, not a vertical industry solution.

I’ve used HoloLens several times, and my observations are, I assume, well-known: This is amazing technology, and the device’s ability to root 3D objects in the real world is truly impressive. But it is let down by its field of view: You can only see those 3D objects within a mail slot-like viewport in the center of your view. As you turn your head or those objects move, you often lose track of them.

Windows Mixed Reality is different. Because, well, it’s VR. And it works much like other VR solutions—Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR—which makes sense. It is less expensive than other PC-based VR systems, though that is starting to change. And it offers, as I had suspected, a nice middle-ground, quality- and expense-wise, between basic phone-based VR (Cardboard, Daydream View) and PC-based VR.

The advantage to Windows Mixed Reality is that it’s built into Windows 10. As a formal platform feature, Windows Mixed Reality can be easily adopted with certainty by developers. It is something that everyone who uses Windows 10 will encounter, even those who do not purchase headsets. It will be served by a competitive market of headsets made by various companies, though all are identical, technically, at the moment. And because Microsoft has integrated this platform with Steam VR, early adopters should have some good content to explore right away.

But it’s still just VR. The resolution of the display isn’t particularly high, no matter which PC you use. (The frame rate, however, is higher on higher-end PCs, that matters greatly. You almost need to experience VR at 60 fps in order to stave off the inevitable feelings of nausea.)

For Windows Mixed Reality, Microsoft has created a virtual home environment that works much like the Windows desktop. (On HoloLens, you use your real home, or at least some real room.) It’s where you access a floating Start menu, launch apps, and pin frequently-used items.

Because Windows Mixed Reality doesn’t support pinch gestures like HoloLens, you’ll need to use one or two motion controllers, which work logically enough and are very similar to controllers used by other VR systems. I adapted to this very quickly.

I was also able to very quickly ascertain that Windows Mixed Reality, as expected, will have limited appeal with typical consumers. $400 to $550 for a headset is a tough purchase for most, even if it is much less expensive than a HoloLens, or about as expensive as PSVR. And the notion of being tethered to a PC, or even owning a PC beefy enough to run this system, is a bit antiquated in this age of wireless communications and thin and light PCs and tablets.

There is promise here, for sure. But Windows Mixed Reality is not “the next wave of computing,” as Microsoft has often said. It is, instead, part of the current wave of PC computing. Something that will help continue this wave longer than any had imagined, like 2-in-1 hardware designs and appealing premium PCs. But it is also locked to a relatively small market, much like gaming PCs are.

Further problematic, Windows Mixed Reality isn’t all that much better than the experience of using Google’s Daydream View, which I verified by using both back-to-back. Daydream View also uses a (single) controller, is also immersive, and offers similar graphics capabilities. But the sound quality is worse (and dependent on your phone), and the phone can get hot quickly. But you can also use it anywhere: You could travel with it and use it in your hotel room, or even on a plane. You can’t really do that with Windows Mixed Reality.

And that’s the issue. With phone platforms like Android and iOS now offering AR and VR experiences, users have one less reason to use a PC. And while Windows Mixed Reality is pretty good overall, it does nothing to overcome that, ahem, reality.

I only spent about 30 minutes with the HP headset. So I’m going to get at least one Windows Mixed Reality headset for myself and explore this functionality further, and in greater detail, in the near future. For now, I’ll just say that the real innovations here—inside-out tracking and platform integration—are worthwhile steps forward. And at the very least, they should incite others in the VR space on the PC to lower prices and match capabilities where possible. But the limitations, while not Microsoft’s fault per se, are very real. And they will limit the appeal, and success, of Windows Mixed Reality. As they do any PC-based VR system.


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Comments (24)

24 responses to “Hands-On with Windows Mixed Reality”

  1. Chris_Kez

    To encourage trial and adoption, I'd like to see PCs include some kind of standardized label indicating they are capable of supporting "Mixed Reality" or "Mixed Reality Ultra". Believe it or not those kinds of badges can spur consumer interest and influence purchase decisions.

  2. Siv

    VR will take off if they solve these problems:

    1. The headset becomes small and light and has no wired connections.
    2. The power of the headset is capable of doing full spherical view from within the headset so no letterbox.
    3. They cure the motion sickness issue so that you can play for hours without chucking up!
    4. The batteries are capable of running for 8 hours without recharging.
    5. The cost is sub $200.
    6. There is a killer game or games that needs VR to work properly and that has mass appeal.
  3. polymath

    PAUL, if you read any of these comments, would you do an article on the minimal pc specifications needed to make this work, I know you have a large number of machines, maybe even finding out if adaptor's that would allow older machines without HDMI to work as well.

    instead of running it on the most powerful pc you can find.

    Amazon & the local "pc world" are selling these headsets & controllers,, combined with the lo spec needed to use the technology will allow this mixed reality the greatest opportunity to be used in society today.

    The next step from Microsoft which would be interesting, could they make an android app which would allow this technology to work with Chromebooks,, maybe even chromecast & an android tablet ,, i wounder if that's possible?

  4. Jorge Garcia

    This stuff is going to be cool...but there's still a good while to go.

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  6. ponsaelius

    The future of AR is probably on mobile for most people. Pull out your phone and maybe review something with an AR style overlay to provide more information or insight. Maybe applications a lot like Nokia City Lens that came with Windowsphone 8.1.

  7. dave0

    I'm only in my 30's, but I feel like an old man. None of this even remotely useful. Perhaps I just lack a creative imagination.

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  9. MutualCore

    I guess mass market low quality VR = phones.

    Good quality VR = Windows Mixed Reality on 'ultra PC' configurations.

    • jrickel96

      In reply to MutualCore:

      I don't think there's a mass market for VR at all. I know no one that has ever used Google's VR on a regular basis. Any that have used it did it once or twice before not caring enough to pursue it.

      VR is niche. AR on your phone does have some potential. Intelligent speakers are also niche. Amazon has seen large declines in Echo sales since February.

      • MutualCore

        In reply to jrickel96:

        Everything is still a niche compared to phones & tablets. Nothing has arrived since tablet market was established in 2010 that has sold more than 100 million units as a market. F.e., the intelligent speakers have maybe sold about 40 million to date. VR headsets, about 3 million.

        Even smart watches are under a 100 million sold to date.

        Nobody even Apple has figured out 'the next big thing' yet.

        • jrickel96

          In reply to MutualCore:

          Smart speakers have probably just barely crossed 10 million, if that. They also tend to only see large volume volume sales at the end of the year as Christmas approaches, so they are often gifts. They were at 8 million back in March over the past two years and change and have noticeably slowed in sales since then. Data indicates growth will be much lower this Christmas and market research indicates that monthly usage is well under 50% of the install base.

          You're right, it's all niche.

          One thing most smart speakers makers fail to realize is most millennials are used to typing while interacting, not talking. Texting has actually made them parser driven and most are more comfortable typing questions than asking them out loud to speakers or their phones. Very few people I know under 40 (including me) talk to their phones or use smart speakers. Those techs are for the Boomers and older Gen X.

  10. Tony Barrett

    Thankfully, Paul is finally saying what many have been saying all along. VR/AR will not be the next big thing. It will not set the world alight, and very, very few people (proportionally) will actually buy into it. It has very limited appeal, requires tethering and lots of space. The headsets are still heavy, hot, cumbersome and expensive. A toy or gimmick, call it what you like, but far, far from a necessary purchase. It's these types of products that will struggle to find a buying market, and even if you do, once the initial appeal has gone, it's likely just going to collect dust.

    • Ugur

      The mistake is in wanting things to be "the next big thing" within year 1 of iteration 1 and then declaring it to be a failure when that does not happen. New technologies take years of investment and stepwise evolutionary progress before they can become the next big thing.
      It takes longterm vision and investment.
  11. CaedenV

    Personally, I am extremely excited about this tech. Being part of the mixed reality platform, I imagine that we will be able to have future devices with cameras which will bring an 'AR-Like' experience where reality and VR elements are mixed on the computer, and then presented in the VR goggles. This would bring a far cheaper version of HolLens without the view limitations... though I imagine latency issues will need to be taken care of before this is opened up as it would make you feel quite drunk.

    Anywho, while AR is going to be great for business, VR is going to be the next gen for gaming and social spaces. The HTC and Rift offerings are neat from a technical perspective, but they are also saddled by companies who misunderstand the market and who are trying to create walled gardens. Being a 'dumb monitor' standard within the OS is going to open up the market in a huge way. It is going to make it cheaper, and more available, and offer greater compatibility with games made by different developers, and available in different stores.

    Getting ready to get a new GPU first, and then I am absolutely going to pick up one of these things. Should be fun!

    • SvenJ

      In reply to CaedenV: "though I imagine latency issues will need to be taken care of before this is opened up as it would make you feel quite drunk." Hmm, if that's the case, these could pay for themselves inside of a month ;)

  12. edboyhan

    It has always seemed to me (since the very first HoloLens demos) that an easy use case for this stuff is to dispense with the H/W cost for displays (and in some cases mice and keyboards). I've seen many PC H/W lashups with 3 display devices. In applications where lots of display real estate is essential (S/W developers, Wall Street Traders -- some traders have as many as 8-10 physical display devices on their positions in a trading room), the ability to forego the expense of needing any display device save the headset has got to be attractive. And with MR (and a sufficiently powerful processor), you can have as many W10 windows open on the walls (ceilings, floors? :grin) as you want.

    While immersive gaming, and the vertical market applications are intriguing, it would seem to me that a simpler focus might move this technology beyond niche use cases. Of course sitting in your cubical all day wearing one of those dorky headsets is going to be just too nerdy and uncool for many (:grin).

  13. melinau

    A somewhat downbeat assessment.

    The crux is that neither the phone-based, nor the PC-based systems are good enough, nor cheap enough to garner many public pounds. The 'phone-based solution is superficially attractive; assuming you're prepared to fork-out £800 on an Ultra-Premium 'phone. Of course lots of people will buy such 'phones but pretty mediocre VR performance is unlikely to make it a mainstream technology. That's probably why Apple are holding fire for now.

    To put it simply: the crucial hardware on any platform is still too expensive, too heavy r too power-hungry etc. for prime-time. There's a good reason HoloLens costs £3000. To get really immersive you need to avoid the dreaded "slot" effect or motion-sickness. These "irritants" (if you're a geek) will all piss-off J. Public. 3D TV has failed for very similar reasons - it simply wasn't (isn't) convincing enough to invest any time or effort in, and nor are any of the currently "affordable" VR systems.

  14. James Wilson

    So then the choice is obvious. Microsoft brings out a mobile platform that they can control and integrate this product with.....oh wait!

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