Acer Mixed Reality HMD: When affordable VR is also great, but not really 'mixed'

Something for Oculus and HTC to worry about
Trying out Acer's Mixed Reality HMD

As great as VR is, I hope the future doesn't involve us all wandering around with giant headsets on. With any luck headsets represent an awkward phase before we reach a next level of tech interaction, like the spotty stage of puberty or those months between having short and long hair when you look like Brian Jones.

Microsoft's Greg Sullivan says VR-adjacent mixed reality is the "natural progression of computing". And in an act of embracing spots and bad haircuts for a brighter future, Microsoft has opened up the work it has done with HoloLens to let other manufacturers make mixed reality Windows 10 headsets.

Read next: The race to mixed reality

The first we've tried is this Acer model. Unlike HoloLens, this blocks off your vision - it's not an augmented reality headset. It's big, it's blue and in use it's a bit like a PS VR headset. While the version I used is intended for developers to work with before a retail launch towards the end of the year, Sullivan says they'll start at $299, just a fraction of the cost of an HTC Vive.

I'll get into the hardware experience in a bit, but it's really what Windows 10 does with these headsets that matters. What does mixed reality really involve when you get down to it?

Windows 10 Mixed reality

Put the headset on, fire up the Windows 10 mixed reality experience and you end up in a fancy-looking apartment, like a Philippe Starck holiday home. Microsoft calls it Cliffhouse. The intent is you'll be able to effectively map Windows 10 elements onto your apartment or house, and walk around it freely. But as I was trying this Acer headset out in a portakabin on top of a skyscraper in New York, I had to make do with a slightly more bargain basement demo.

I used an Xbox controller to wander few a couple of rooms in the stylish virtual apartment. One wall was turned into a giant video screen, mimicking the sort of effect you might get using a projector on the largest wall of your living room. In another room, which I zapped over to using the pad's Y button and the now-familiar-in-VR teleporter 'gesture', smaller screens hung in the air like giant bezel-less computer monitors. One was an Edge browser window. Another was a weather report, the last an email client.

You just look at each and then press the pad's A button to open them up, like a VR version of Windows 10 multi-tasking. The effect will be much more impressive once mapped onto a real-world environment rather than simply cheating my way through the digital one with gamepad buttons. But there is still the classic six-degrees-of-freedom movement required for a believable virtual environment. I could move my head and the windows and environment would respond with lag minuscule enough to cheat the brain into considering it real. Ish. Windows 10's Edge browser and the 'video' wall in particular seemed surprisingly usable in this strangely ordinary virtual context.

Eventually you'll be able to design your own environment, plonking digital objects - or holograms as the demonstrator referred to them - where you like. At this stage, with this demo, the experience is much more "VR" than mixed reality, but it's not hard to imagine how the real can be mapped onto the digital when you're dealing with a homely virtual world like this rather than one meant to entertain you with its mere presence.

This concept didn't work too well for PlayStation Home, but maybe Microsoft will have more luck. The Acer demo handler talked enthusiastically about how he has been watching videos for hours on the headset in his tiny flat. Perhaps this 'mixed reality' is where we'll all end up when we've been gentrified out of the real world.

Acer's Headset Hardware

With that depressing thought, let's return to the hardware. The Acer headset is pretty simple and fairly light. A PS VR-like band sits around your head, clamping to it with a basic fastener. In the picture here it looks like a form of torture, but was actually quite comfortable in use.

Acer says it also learned from the current headsets, making the front part roomy enough to easily accommodate glasses. At the time I was wearing a fairly large pair of specs, the rounded kind that were fashionable in trendy parts of London five years ago, and they fit in perfectly.

For local environment tracking, there's a pair of ultra-wide angle cameras on the front of the headset. A couple of times the height tracking went a bit wonky, but the setup of the system was hastily done and I was actually fairly impressed with the reliability of the head tracking. It felt natural.

Image quality is also comparable to that of much more expensive headsets. Each eye gets 1440 x 1440 pixels. There's the pixellation that comes with every current VR headset, but the pixel structure isn't too apparent and from memory at least sharpness seems roughly comparable to that of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Similarly, there's optical distortion towards the edges of the field, much like Oculus Rift, but it is not too distracting once you learn to move your head rather than look sideways.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how comfortable motion seems given the Acer headset uses LCD displays rather than much faster-refreshing OLED panels. In the past I've felt sick after about 30 seconds using an LCD-based VR experience, but here I felt fine after a full five minutes. Whether that comfort would persist remains to be proved, mind.

One nice feature of the Acer headset is that if one too many virtual browser windows starts making you dry heave, you can simply lift up the front display part. It's hinged, letting you see the outside world and get a breather without having to go through the rigmarole of taking off the whole headset.

Whether you, like Microsoft's Greg Sullivan, think mixed reality is the future of computing or rather think this smells like a non-starter, headsets like this have the potential to give the category a wider appeal. "By the end of this year we'll have an update to Windows 10 that will allow these headset to connect with computers that use Integrated graphics," says Sullivan, telling us the $300 starting point for these headsets could well be the only major outlay.

Microsoft says HP, Dell and Lenovo are also working on similar Windows 10 mixed reality headsets. By the end of the year we may be spoilt for choice.

What do you think?

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