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?