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.
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.
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.