A fresh look at VR—with help from Mi­crosoft

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Win­dows Mixed Real­ity takes a fresh look at VR

VIR­TUAL REAL­ITY hasn’t been the hit many ex­pected. Al­most two years af­ter the re­lease of the Vive and Rift, the PC finds it­self play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to the Sony PlaySta­tion VR. The console up­start ac­counts for 49 per­cent of the VR mar­ket, with 21 per­cent go­ing to the Rift, and 16 per­cent to the room-scale HTC Vive. The last 14 per­cent is claimed by largely wire-free op­tions, which many ex­pect to rep­re­sent the fu­ture of the tech.

Into this frag­mented land­scape, the Lenovo Explorer and the rest of the new Mixed Real­ity head­sets find them­selves as some­thing of an evo­lu­tion­ary odd­ity, strad­dling the moves made by the first-gen head­sets and the un­teth­ered sec­ond-gen mod­els. The hard­ware spec for the Lenovo Explorer puts in a good show against those first head­sets, sup­port­ing a higher na­tive res­o­lu­tion, and the op­tion of aug­ment­ing the real with the vir­tual, but it still re­lies on a long ca­ble plugged into your graph­ics card, an­chor­ing you to the real world.

The most im­por­tant as­pect for any VR head­set is the qual­ity of the im­age that hits your eye­balls, and here the Explorer is a mixed bag. The screen door ef­fect that was ev­i­dent on the first gen­er­a­tion mod­els is still there, but not as ob­vi­ous, and the added clar­ity of the higher res­o­lu­tion 1440x1440 dis­plays is wel­come. We did have a prob­lem with fo­cus, though, and found get­ting the im­age per­fect in both eyes at the same time al­most im­pos­si­ble.

At 13oz, the head­set is light and com­fort­able in use, but the foam cush­ion­ing around the vi­sor in­tro­duces sub­tle move­ments when you move your head, which causes blur­ring of the im­age. The im­mer­sion isn’t ideal ei­ther, be­cause the screens are small, which gives a

gen­eral feel­ing that you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing th­ese vir­tual worlds through a div­ing mask, rather than ac­tu­ally be­ing in the world. There are head­sets that try to im­prove the field of view (FOV) prob­lem, and us­ing the Explorer, we can see why the in­dus­try is eye­ing up such a move.

Like the first-gen­er­a­tion head­sets, the Lenovo Explorer lacks au­dio play­back, pre­fer­ring to let the user use their own head­phones of choice. An ar­gu­ment we can un­der­stand in the­ory, but in prac­tice it means there are even more wires and clut­ter to hit that im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. The fact that the just-an­nounced Vive Pro in­te­grates au­dio into the head­set is a good sign of where things need to go.

You’re go­ing to need a rel­a­tively kick­ass ma­chine to get the most from this head­set—it shouldn’t come as too much of a sur­prise to learn that you’ll need a mod­ern graph­ics card, al­though the reliance on Blue­tooth 4.0 in­di­cates that this is a plat­form that is aimed at lap­top users more than high-end desk­tops. If your moth­er­board doesn’t have Blue­tooth, you can pick up a don­gle cheaply enough (you can find plenty on Ama­zon for less than $10), which does have us wondering why this isn’t just in­cluded in the pack.

The con­trollers them­selves work well, and feel good in hand. And while, ini­tially, know­ing where the var­i­ous but­tons and thumb­sticks are is a lit­tle tricky (you can’t see them, af­ter all), a cou­ple of hours in, it’s all very nat­u­ral. The Lenovo Explorer sup­ports room-scale VR with­out re­ly­ing on Light­houses, too, and from our ex­pe­ri­ence, it works well, al­though you do need a good square yard or so of space to use it prop­erly. Al­ter­na­tively, you can just use it on your desk.

There is another, po­ten­tially big­ger, prob­lem for Lenovo, though—nearly two years af­ter the re­lease of the orig­i­nal HTC Vive and Ocu­lus Rift, there’s still no killer app. There sim­ply isn’t a con­vinc­ing rea­son to buy into VR. Win­dows Mixed Real­ity does scat­ter a few more apps into the mix, but there’s noth­ing meaty enough to have us rec­om­mend­ing you rush out and buy one.

There’s also the nag­ging feel­ing that maybe, just maybe, tra­di­tional gam­ing isn’t the best use of VR’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This is backed up by the fact that it’s in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences that stand out most—a large whale swim­ming along­side you, the feel­ing of ver­tigo, look­ing down at a vir­tu­al­ized Tokyo, or the gut-clench­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of oh-so-many roller coaster rides. It’s here that the Mixed Real­ity an­gle, and Mi­crosoft’s more ed­u­ca­tion­ally savvy of­fer­ings, could pro­duce that much-needed killer app. We’re happy to hope some­thing good can be born out of Mi­crosoft get­ting in on the game, but it hasn’t emerged just yet.

The HTC Vive was re­leased at $600, and the Ocu­lus Rift can be picked up for un­der $500, so the fact that the Lenovo Explorer is avail­able from $350 is to be com­mended, es­pe­cially as it has an im­proved spec­i­fi­ca­tion over first-gen gear. How­ever, the mar­ket needs to move on even faster, and while a pos­i­tive step, we ex­pect even more to get the PC back on top. At this point, that’s go­ing to re­quire a rev­o­lu­tion, rather than this sub­tle evo­lu­tion.

Lenovo Explorer

LUCID High res­o­lu­tion dis­plays; com­fort­able; wire­less con­trollers; good price.

NIGHTMARE No head­phones; lacks in­di­vid­ual lens con­trol; move­ment loses fo­cus; still no killer apps.

$ 450, www.lenovo.com

An im­prove­ment on first-gen VR, but it doesn’t go far enough.

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