VR is a pain to set up. According to Microsoft, it’s the top reason for VR headset returns at Microsoft Stores.
When I tried Acer’s Windows 10-ready VR headset for myself, I realized how simple it could be to use. I say “could be,” because it depends on whether its tracking cameras end up being more or less reliable than the wired sensors and external accessories needed for PC VR systems like Oculus Rift and Vive.
Microsoft’s next wave of Windows 10 VR headsets — which Microsoft is calling “Mixed Reality,” not VR — have cameras built in that handle all room sensing and motion tracking, no extra plug-in boxes necessary. (In the VR landscape it’s called inside-out tracking using “6DoF,” or “six degrees of freedom.”) In other words, you just plug the headset into a computer and you’re ready to go.
Acer’s little VR headset will be one of the first, and one of the cheapest. Available now in a developer-ready version, it will arrive by the holidays for $300 (equivalent to £231 or AU$400), undercutting the price of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the two reigning Windows-connected VR headsets already on the market for over a year.
But will it be as good? That depends on Microsoft and its apps… and on this headset’s tracking hardware.
Tracking built into the headset
The headset’s cameras can track space without using external camera sensors, but the demos still required that I use an Xbox controller to walk and click on things. The “six degrees of freedom” motion sensors are evolved from Microsoft’s HoloLens, a far more expensive augmented-reality headset that can mix its virtual objects into the real world. Acer’s headset is just VR, but it can theoretically run the same apps that work in Hololens, provided that app developers update them for these new headsets.
But the tracking, based on my early experiences with the dev kit, had issues. Sometimes, if I turned slightly, my screen would lose mooring and black out. It may have been due to light coming in. This is an early-stage developer kit, but it’s unclear how much a room’s lighting conditions will affect tracking.
Lightweight, PlayStation VR-like feel
I tried a few demos of apps and experiences in Windows Mixed Reality, one in an office setting and one at Acer’s New York press event. My experience varied. The headset feels light and pretty comfortable, like a smaller, lighter PlayStation VR. It rests on my head and flips down over my glasses like a visor.
From there, it’s more of a mixed bag. The visuals aren’t bad, but I thought they looked better than Dan Ackerman did, who thought it was a clear step below both Oculus Rift and Vive. Microsoft’s “mixed reality” hub for Windows 10 definitely has an Oculus vibe: A “Cliff House” open-walled central home hub, overlooking the mountains, feels like the open-aired virtual living-room hub of Oculus Rift. That home has walls where different apps can be experienced. I walked up to one wall where an Edge browser showed me videos and news. On another wall, I browsed movies and videos, including a 360-degree video shot with an array of GoPros. Another app, Holotour (also available for HoloLens), shows a 3D spinning globe where I can zoom in on panoramas. It’s no Google Earth, though.
Microsoft’s VR-slash-mixed-reality strategy is also designed to work across Windows 10, so that you could work in one app and hop into another, all with your headset on. However, this headset will use Microsoft’s app store as its pipeline for VR games and apps and won’t be compatible with Oculus Rift or Vive software. Which means… one more Windows VR platform.
Coming for the holidays
The Acer headset available now is for developers, but the final consumer-ready version will arrive by the holidays. Hopefully the tracking kinks will get worked out by then. By then other Microsoft-ready VR headsets from companies like Lenovo and HP should arrive as well. But as far as apps, Microsoft will need to show more to prove that Windows Mixed Reality can be an experience worth leaving Oculus or Vive for.