Affordable mixed reality headgear costing roughly $300 will be arriving this year —consumer models are expected in the fall with development editions coming sooner — from Windows and partners like Asus, Lenovo and Acer. Plus, what's even more exciting is that by the time consumers get their hands on the cheap headgear, you won't have to buy an expensive PC to actually play in mixed reality. A Windows 10 update in the fall will let affordable PCs (think $500) power these new mixed reality headsets and experiences.
I got to test Acer's $300 Mixed Reality Developer Edition Headsets, and liked much of what I saw. It's no HoloLens, the $3,000 self-contained wearable PC that powers a pretty-mind-blowing mixed reality experience, but you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Acer’s Mixed Reality Headset, for example, isn’t as sleek looking as HoloLens and it doesn’t truly mix the virtual and real (though that is supported by Microsoft's mixed reality platform). But I found the headset (though I couldn’t take a picture) can feel at points remarkably similar to the HoloLens Experience.
The headset, which looked exactly like the one pictured above, is what one might call fully-occluded headgear. When you put it on, it blocks your view and does not use what appears to be two forward-facing cameras to pull in a live picture of your real world.
The headgear is, by the way, lightweight and comfortable. It might be even more trouble-free to wear and adjust than Microsoft HoloLens, but unlike HoloLens, it is tethered. Since Mixed Reality partner headgear are 3D displays with six-degrees of freedom motion tracking, all the processing of and interaction with 3D imagery is done on the PC. As a result, two cables, an HDMI and USB 3, snake out of the back of the headgear and get plugged into a high-powered PC. In my case, it was a 17-inch Razer gaming rig.
Setup only took a moment as I let the headgear’s movement trackers adjust to my height and find the floor. We did not let it scan the perimeter to build a basic mesh for my office walls. As a result, I remained seated for my demo.
The speed with which we set up the Mixed Reality headgear is important. Microsoft told me that while HTC and Oculus customers, who can buy Oculus Rift and Vive at its stores, love the VR experiences, they have been taken aback by the VR setup, in particular the need to attach motion trackers to walls.
There’s none of that with Acer’s headset which takes an inside/out approach to tracking.
Third-party headsets will connect to Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Portal app. Microsoft says it’s better to think of this as a different Windows environment and not a whole new platform. Virtually all Windows Apps could conceivably run within it.
The environment is a cliff house set in a fictional Pacific Coast-like world. Through the headset, I could see spare, modern looking rooms, a distinct lack of exterior walls and a mountainous vista, including some rocky edifices floating in the sky. Once I adjusted the headset, the imagery was sharp. There was no indication of my real world. Had I scanned the room in advance, I would notice a mesh of bright dots when I moved too close to a real wall. The headset, however, does not produce a 3D-mesh of the real room, so it knows nothing of the desk in front of me. Good thing I was still sitting down.
If I felt too cut off from the world, Acer’s headset is designed to let me flip up the visor to see my real surroundings. This is smart, and I hope every other Microsoft partner replicates it.
A tiny white dot floated in the center of my gaze; this was my pointer. I’d been handed an Xbox controller (plugged into another one of the laptops’ USB ports). I pressed A to select objects. I could look down at the floor near me or a distance away, press Y, and teleport to that spot. I was also able to use the bumpers for sharp 90-degree turns. I could even use the joystick to zoom in on an object, but because my real body wasn’t also moving, this made me feel a little sick.
Using the Xbox controller to manage my experience felt a little bit like a VR step back, especially after I recently used a pair of Oculus Touch controllers with Oculus Rift. There's a lot you can do with all those Xbox controller buttons, but your hands are kind of stuck in your lap.
Floating in the space in front of me was a Start Panel with options for the Edge browser, the App Store, Hologram objects, Photos, Movies and TV and Cortana. I could select any of these and pin the app to a wall or dismiss the start menu.