Win­dows gets ready to em­brace in­te­grated VR


Mixed re­al­ity hard­ware; new Google gear; dan­ger­ous search terms.

“WITH WIN­DOWS mixed re­al­ity, you can es­cape the ev­ery­day into a world of imag­i­na­tion.” Ac­cord­ing to Mi­crosoft’s sales pitch, at least. Mixed re­al­ity is the head­line act for the Win­dow 10 Fall Creators Up­date. The first five head­sets have been un­veiled, and will be ready to buy by the time you read this.

Why use the term mixed re­al­ity in­stead of vir­tual re­al­ity? Be­cause the head­sets all have front-mounted cam­eras, which en­able the blend­ing of the real world with the vir­tual one. This en­ables some neat tricks. Your vir­tual world could in­clude sub­tle bound­ary mark­ers taken from the phys­i­cal world, to stop you blun­der­ing into the scenery. At the other end of the scale, it can present a view of the real world, with added avatars and vir­tual el­e­ments, Poké­monGo style. The cam­eras also en­able the track­ing to be done en­tirely on the head­set—no ex­ter­nal track­ing cam­eras are re­quired, so any area is the play area.

The new head­sets all fol­low a sim­i­lar pat­tern, with vari­a­tions in er­gonomics and build qual­ity. The prices are a lit­tle higher than we had hoped. There was talk of $299 head­sets, which haven’t ma­te­ri­al­ized yet. The Acer MR Head­set and Dell Visor are $399, the Len­ovo Ex­plorer and HP MR Head­set are $449, while Sam­sung’s Odyssey weighs in at $499. The first four have sim­i­lar ba­sic hard­ware spec­i­fi­ca­tions, with two 1440x1440 screens, and a 90Hz re­fresh rate. The Sam­sung boasts fancier 2880x1600 OLED screens—im­pres­sive. All use the same wire­less mo­tion con­trollers, stud­ded with LEDs to en­able track­ing. Head­phones and mi­cro­phones are no­table omis­sions.

Hard­ware re­quire­ments de­pend on the mode. MR can run in Reg­u­lar and Ul­tra modes. The lower mode, us­ing in­te­grated graphics, isn’t to be rec­om­mended; the re­fresh rate drops to 60Hz, which can quickly lead to VR’s Achilles’ heel: nau­sea. Reg­u­lar mode re­quires a Core i5-7200U or bet­ter pro­ces­sor with HT, and in­te­grated HD 620 graphics or bet­ter. Ul­tra mode needs a Core i5-4590 quad­core CPU, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960, AMD Radeon RX 460, or bet­ter graphics— fairly chunky, but not as de­mand­ing as ri­val vir­tual re­al­ity sys­tems.

What can you run on your new MR head­set? Quite a bit: some top ti­tles from the Mi­crosoft Store, in­clud­ing MinecraftVR and HaloRe­cruit, as well as ac­cess to ti­tles from SteamVR. These head­sets have the weight of Mi­crosoft Win­dows be­hind them, so ex­pect sup­port to be much more ro­bust, and with strong ex­clu­sives ti­tles.

VR has been the next big thing for so long that it’s easy to be cyn­i­cal, but this is a huge step. When Mi­crosoft in­te­grates some­thing into Win­dows, and starts spend­ing se­ri­ous de­vel­op­ment money, it’s time to take note. The Ocu­lus Rift and HTC Vive have re­mained niche gam­ing gear. Mi­crosoft’s MR head­sets aim to break out of pure VR gam­ing into wider us­age, such as pro­duc­tiv­ity, en­ter­tain­ment, and so­cial me­dia. For ex­am­ple, Mi­crosoft has a new VR so­cial net­work called AltspaceVR, where your avatar can chat to oth­ers.

MR head­sets are un­likely to sell in big num­bers ini­tially, but prospects look good. Putting all the track­ing on the head­set is a sys­tem oth­ers would do well to copy. Soft­ware sup­port is de­cent and will get bet­ter, and hard­ware re­quire­ments are OK. VR in Ul­tra mode is a match for the estab­lished sys­tems, and the MR part adds a new di­men­sion, with the po­ten­tial for some in­no­va­tive uses. If any VR-style sys­tem has a chance to be­come truly main­stream, this is it. Get the pop­corn ready, and watch this space.

The first batch of head­sets is here, ready to add mixed

re­al­ity to Win 10. VR has seen many false dawns, could

this re­ally be it?

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