(Un)Real Life

Mi­crosoft makes its play with a HMD stan­dard and ecosys­tem in­tended to bring VR and AR to the masses. BEN MANSILL sticks his head up it.

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

IFA

in Ber­lin in Au­gust was the event when the lid truly came off Mi­crosoft’s vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity de­sires. Many head­sets were un­veiled from the likes of Len­ovo, HP, Dell and Asus. All com­ply with Mi­crosoft’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions, and it seems, com­mon er­gonomic de­sign, too.

The driv­ing fac­tor be­hind the tech specs is a need for com­pat­i­bil­ity with the Win­dows Mixed Re­al­ity ecosys­tem. That is good, and po­ten­tially bad news. The screen res­o­lu­tion is an un­usual 1440 x 1440 on each of the two 2.89-inch screens. This is dis­played in a 110 de­gree field of view. That is what Mi­crosoft de­mands, but the net re­sult is a good one in terms of the im­age qual­ity. In my time play­ing it was at least as good as the Rift CV1 and Vive, de­spite hav­ing a lower hor­i­zon­tal res­o­lu­tion - but higher ver­ti­cal res.

Re­fresh rate is ei­ther 60 or 90Hz. But here’s the thing... Mi­crosoft Mixed Re­al­ity dic­tates no user over­rid­ing of any set­tings, and it runs a sys­tem check on in­stal­la­tion to de­ter­mine its con­fig­u­ra­tion. On a PC with in­te­grated graph­ics it will scale to 1280 x 1280 @ 60Hz. De­cent dis­crete graph­ics lets it run at full res at 90Hz, and there’s po­ten­tial to su­per­scale at 2k per screen if your sys­tem meets Mi­crosoft’s re­quire­ments.

On one hand, al­low­ing peo­ple with lower spec in­te­grated graph­ics sys­tems to have access to VR is good, but the lim­it­ing to 60Hz means a po­ten­tially (game de­pend­ing) poor ex­pe­ri­ence – pos­si­bly peo­ple’s first VR ex­pe­ri­ence at that.

VR AND AR

Win­dows Mixed Re­al­ity head­sets all have for­ward fac­ing cam­eras. In VR mode these mon­i­tor the LEDs on the hand wands to repli­cate their po­si­tion in the vir­tual world. When in AR (aug­mented re­al­ity) mode they look out­wards into the real world, aug­mented things then su­per­im­posed upon the cam­era-view of re­al­ity you have.

Nei­ther Ocu­lus Rift nor Vive of­fer this, and it could be the edge Mi­crosoft needs to be­come the main­stream stan­dard. Let’s not for­get the pi­o­neer­ing AR and po­si­tional sens­ing and track­ing work the com­pany has done with its Kinect and HoloLens tech­nolo­gies.

Crit­i­cally, Win­dows Mixed Re­al­ity is also 100% com­pat­i­ble with Steam VR, thus open­ing it up to an in­stant and huge au­di­ence of PC gamers.

HANDS ON

I spent the most time with Len­ovo’s Ex­plorer VR. The Ex­plorer is a fas­ci­nat­ing VR HMD. Num­ber one, it’s the light­est HMD on the mar­ket (Len­ovo’s claim) at 380g, and it’s also the nicest de­sign (my opin­ion). The screen part of the de­vice flips up while it re­mains strapped to your head - and that alone is just won­der­ful. It means you can eas­ily swap in and out of re­al­ity with­out re­mov­ing the whole HMD. It’s also a bless­ing to glasses wear­ers, and my ev­ery­day pair fit­ted per­fectly within the Ex­plorer – the same pair that nei­ther the Rift nor Vive al­lows in­side them due to space.

An­other im­por­tant de­sign fea­ture is the sin­gle knob that tight­ens the head band. When I tried it, it shames the so­lu­tions of oth­ers, it’s so sim­ple to get it fit­ted right, and es­pe­cially use­ful if you’re shar­ing

Win­dows Mixed Re­al­ity is com­pat­i­ble with Steam VR, open­ing it up to a huge au­di­ence

it around with friends. I didn’t test it with re­ally ag­gres­sive head move­ment, though, but it did feel firmly strapped down re­gard­less.

SEN­SORS AND WANDS

It’s also free of ex­ter­nal room sen­sors, an­other marked de­vi­a­tion from the Rift and Vive way of do­ing things. The front of the HMD has for­ward-fac­ing sen­sors built in that bathe the room with in­vis­i­ble pin­points of light in the same way Mi­crosoft Kinect does. Len­ovo told me that there is no limit to the room size as a max­i­mum, so pre­sum­ably the sen­sor is far reach­ing. Len­ovo rec­om­mends a min­i­mum play area of 3m x 3m, and the gen­er­ous 4m cable length should al­low fairly unim­paired play.

And, it has hand wands. They look very much like the Rift’s and the unit comes with a pair. They have six de­grees of sens­ing free­dom. Po­si­tional ac­cu­racy and fidelity of the wands was su­perb. Fault­less.

SIGN ME UP

Steady on, vir­tual sol­dier. These will be with us closer to Christ­mas. AU and NZ pric­ing is ex­pected to be less than Rift and Vive, com­ing in at US$399 for a bun­dle that in­cludes the two hand wands. It’s US$100 less with­out them.

You will also need Win­dows 10 with the lat­est Cre­ator’s Up­date (which is free).

Win­dows Mixed Re­al­ity mixes - you guessed it - vir­tual and aug­mented re­al­ity.

You’ll want a min­i­mum 3x3m space, but at least there’s no ex­ter­nal sen­sors to po­si­tion.

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