Acer’s Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset and motion controllers arrived today, giving me my first in-depth look at Microsoft’s latest platform push.
So there are a few things going on here: Acer’s hardware, which seems durable and well-made. And then Microsoft’s software platform, Windows Mixed Reality, which seems a bit immature to me.
So let’s start with the good news: Acer’s Windows Mixed Reality headset, which comes with two motion controllers, is on the affordable end of the Windows Mixed Reality spectrum, coming in at $399. I see little reason to consider other, more expensive devices: The Acer headset includes a nice hinged display, which allows you to flip up the headset so you can see the real world easily when needed.
And it is as comfortable as it can be, given the bulky, occluded nature of such devices. There’s a handy dial on the back of the headset for getting the right fit, and it stays in place well.
Setup is as simple as it can be, too, given the amount of hardware and configuration that’s required for VR.
Assuming you have a powerful enough Windows 10 PC—and I do, thanks to an HP gaming rig review unit with a Core i7 processor, dual NVIDIA GTX 1080 graphics cards, 16 GB of RAM, and speedy SSD storage—you just need to plug the headset via both HDMI (video-in) and USB (power) and, optionally, to a pair of headphones, which will provide more immersive sound. This will launch the Mixed Reality Portal app on the PC, which will guide you through pairing the two motion controllers and getting started via a wizard-like app. The whole process took me 10 or 15 minutes.
Once you are up and running, Cortana will guide you through a short tutorial in which you learn how to navigate around virtual spaces using your gaze and the motion controllers. (You can optionally use a mouse or gamepad instead, but I haven’t tried that yet.) You have a choice between using a big space in your room or just sitting or standing in front of the PC. I chose the latter for now to get started more quickly.
Ultimately, you’ll arrive at a virtual home that is used to launch various apps and games. You can access a floating Start menu here—via a Windows button on either controller—and can pin apps and games to walls, and place hologram objects like lamps and pictures around the home to decorate if you’d like.
I quickly worked through most the built-in experiences, which include the Store, so you can find more VR apps and games, Groove for music, Movies & TV for immersive 360-degree videos, Photos, Skype, Microsoft Edge, and a few others. Each worked as expected, and while some experiences were more interesting than others—those immersive 360-degree videos are always pretty cool—there were no real surprises.
I like that Microsoft has formally made VR part of the Windows platform, and we’ve already seen the positive impact that this move has had on competitors, which are now lowering prices and promising less complex set-ups with future products. But the Windows Mixed Reality suffers from a few obvious problems, and it’s not clear when—or even if—all of these will be addressed.
The most obvious is that chicken-and-egg issue where there aren’t enough users to attract top-tier developers who might create truly first-class VR experiences, while convincing customers to buy into a platform with so few interesting VR experiences is likewise problematic.
The bulky nature of these headsets is a turn-off too, and while I’m not sure VR or AR will be a mainstream computing experience anytime soon, morphing these tethered headsets into glasses would make a huge difference. They’re just too much for most people, I think.
The price doesn’t help, either: While I’m sure the $399 price tag is justified by the components, that’s a lot of money to ask for something that is currently this limited.
And the resolution—1440 x 1440 in each screen, one for each eye—is very low. Noticeably low. When I pull off the headset and see the same view on my PC’s screen—you can mirror what the headset is seeing in the Mixed Reality Portal app—it’s like going from a 320 x 240 YouTube video to 4K. It’s immediately noticeable.
Is Windows Mixed Reality “better” than phone-based VR systems like Google Daydream View? Yes and no. Phone-based VR is far more portable, for sure, and while the resolution is low there as well, it doesn’t seem far off, visually. But phones get hot when used in this manner, and I’m sure battery life suffers. So your choices aren’t great: Mobility with heat and battery life problems vs. lack of mobility and tethered to an expensive PC with a bulky headset. Pick your poison.
Basically, you need to take a long-term view to see the real impact of Windows Mixed Reality. Now that this platform is simply part of Windows, it can evolve and improve with Windows. And it will only get better over time. In the meantime, Microsoft has done a good job of letting Windows users access VR/AR-type experiences, including 3D, on their normal 2D displays.
Also, Windows Mixed Reality—and the HoloLens which inspired it—are the basis for some interesting UX improvements coming to 2D Windows; for example, the light-based selection effects we see in the Fluent Design System. Put simply, this is one step forward on a long journey.
I’ll keep exploring Windows Mixed Reality. I have some games to buy and try, and I really do enjoy the immersive 360-degree videos. There’s also that free-roaming room setup to try. But I’ll also be watching to see how this platform evolves, both in Redstone 4 and in future Windows 10 versions. Whatever it’s state of readiness today, Windows Mixed Reality is part of Windows now, and it may take on a bigger role in the future.
Tagged with Windows Mixed Reality