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.