Mixed Reality

What is Windows Mixed Reality?

I’ve heard a lot about Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality, but up until this week I’ve been a little confused. Microsoft insists on calling its new headsets “Mixed Reality” ones, when they’re really just virtual reality. At IFA in Berlin this week, Microsoft is showcasing all of its Mixed Reality headsets from PC makers like Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. Most of them are arriving next month, priced around $349 to compete with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. So what is Windows Mixed Reality really like? I got a chance to try it and find out.

Unlike some of the previous demonstrations of Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the experience now includes a portal and home area (Cliff House) where you can access games and apps. It’s the most impressive part of Windows Mixed Reality for me, and it acts like a virtual living room of sorts. You can drag and drop holograms around just like you can in HoloLens, pin apps to walls, and there’s also a separate cinema room for watching TV shows or movies.

You can even run a virtual version of your actual desktop and control it through the headset, which is the ultimate meta moment. It sounds really gimmicky, but I spent about 20 minutes just standing there playing around with lots of regular Windows Universal Apps. It’s a lot more fun than the mundane environment of my Oculus Rift at home, and Microsoft clearly wants this to be your hub for running its universal apps. If this gets good enough one day, I could see it replicating a multi-monitor setup for when you’re mobile.

A lot of the experience is made more powerful with the Mixed Reality motion controllers. They remind me of the Oculus Touch controllers I have at home, but they don’t need any external sensors. That means you can plug these headsets into a laptop using just an HDMI and USB port instead of the two additional USB 3.0 ports required for the Oculus sensors. You don’t need to do much setup for Windows Mixed Reality, apart from marking out your play area, but you can even avoid that if you stay in one spot.

The motion controllers have a Windows and menu button, a front trigger, a grip button, an analog stick, and even a little trackpad next to the stick. My colleague Adi Robertson best summed up these controllers by saying, “The shape felt a little too big for my hand.” I couldn’t agree more. Despite Microsoft making keyboards and mice for more years than I’ve been alive, it really failed with the ergonomics here and it’s disappointing. The Oculus Touch controllers feel far more natural in your hands, whereas Microsoft’s are too long and have rough edges that push into your palms.

Each Windows Mixed Reality headset maker is using Microsoft’s motion controller reference design and sticking their own logo on them, but there’s no tweaking. I understand the need to keep controls similar across devices, but I’d like to see different motion controllers here that keep the button layout and improve on the ergonomics.

Each motion controller also has an assortment of white LEDs at the top, allowing the sensors on the front of each Mixed Reality headset to track them. I found the tracking super impressive and very accurate. I played Superhot and it accurately tracked my position every time I punched an enemy in the face. The only thing I wasn’t able to test was a game like Robo Recall where you grab guns over your shoulders. Microsoft’s tracking works by picking up the controllers in front of you, but if you place them behind you then it can’t see them. That shouldn’t be a problem in most VR experiences; even if you physically turn around the motion controllers will still be tracked.

Microsoft will also support SteamVR games and apps or games from the Windows Store, so there should be a good selection that will hopefully improve in time. This early showing is impressive, though. Dell’s headset felt basic, but comfortable. I tried Acer’s earlier this year and I wasn’t impressed with the build quality or comfort, but Dell’s and Lenovo’s are definitely more in line with what you’d get from a Vive or Rift. I didn’t feel as fully immersed as those other headsets, though, and I think you really have to tighten the headset close to your eyes to improve that.

So, Mixed Reality is essentially virtual reality for Microsoft, for now. Microsoft has picked that name because it eventually wants to blend the best of augmented and virtual reality into a single headset with support for multiple experiences. I think that’s where the industry is ultimately heading, but the Mixed Reality naming sounds like it’s promising more than virtual reality right now. It’s not, but Microsoft’s first stab is solid.

I was expecting cheaper headsets, but Oculus and HTC have both cut their prices recently ahead of Microsoft’s announcements, so it makes Windows Mixed Reality headsets not as cheap as they sounded earlier this year. Still, Acer’s headset will retail at $299, and HP’s at $329. Both Lenovo and Dell are selling their headsets for $349, while Asus is significantly more expensive at around $535. Microsoft is clearly aiming to bring virtual — sorry, I mean Mixed Reality — to the masses, and it now needs to convince game developers and all headset makers to support its platform.

This article was originally published by THE VERGE.