Microsoft is already firmly involved in the world of AR with HoloLens, but its VR headsets, which have been dubbed Windows Mixed Reality, are set to arrive on the scene soon.
One of the goals of Mixed Reality is to bring "powerful and affordable VR" to people. But, at the same time, Microsoft is aiming to make Mixed Reality stand out from efforts from Oculus, HTC and PlayStation.
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As we inch toward the public debut of Windows Mixed Reality in holiday 2017, Microsoft and its partners are slowly but surely dripping and dropping little tidbits of information for us to consume. That can make it a little hard to keep up with what's happening, who's involved, as well as the latest price points, release date, specs and design decisions.
So read on for everything we know so far.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: What is it?
Yeah, what exactly is the thing? Well, Microsoft and its smorgasbord of partners are essentially bringing a half-way point between VR and HoloLens, giving the headsets a different angle to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. This, thankfully, also means they'll be more affordable and require a bit less grunt power from your PC.
Each third-party headset has a pair of depth-sensing cameras on the front, which is designed to let us have room-scale tracking without having to fill the house with sensors.
Microsoft is keen to use the phrase mixed reality for this project, rather than describing the headset as AR or VR. But in the original Windows 10 headset announcements last year, the VR label was used.
Microsoft is attempting to differentiate its headsets from the likes of PS VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift – i.e. flat-out VR devices – and instead incorporate elements from its HoloLens project to make it a more rounded virtual experience.
When we tried Acer's Windows Mixed Reality headset, however, our experience was more virtual than 'mixed'. We were plopped into a virtual apartment Microsoft referred to as Cliffhouse, and unfortunately didn't get to try out some of them more mixed reality features. In the future, when the headset and its corresponding features are more complete, you'll be able to do things like map out your own apartment or insert holograms, we're told.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: Who's on board?
A whole bunch of Windows VR headsets went live at CES back in January, with Lenovo, HP, Dell Acer and 3Glasses showing off the fresh headgear.
Lenovo recently noted its headset won't be compatible with existing Oculus or Vive VR apps and games, but it may work with some HoloLens apps, i.e. scanning real world items to bring them into virtual worlds.
And at GDC 2017, Microsoft also showed off the Acer Windows Mixed Reality developer edition headset that's shipping to developers this summer.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: What about Xbox?
The company is targeting Windows 10 initially, but has also confirmed that it's going to bring mixed reality to the Xbox One and Project Scorpio - the latter being the next Xbox console set to launch at the end of 2017.
It's currently unclear what this will actually look like, or if this will be a dedicated headset, but it's certainly implied in the recent statement below.
"We're excited to share that Windows Mixed Reality experiences will light up on other devices over time, beyond desktop and Microsoft HoloLens. Our plan is to bring mixed reality content to the Xbox One family of devices, including Project Scorpio, in 2018."
This also means it'll essentially be going head to head against PS VR, despite the mixed reality element helping Microsoft to bring something different to the party.
For more on this, take a look at what we know so far on Xbox Project Scorpio.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: Design and specs
Some devices, like Acer's headset, will be tethered to a Windows 10 PC while others will be self-contained and untethered, according to Microsoft's developer notes. You'll also be able to use wireless motion controllers, like the prototype wand controller in the demo above, to navigate around the interface.
Specs for every variant of the software giant's headsets aren't yet known, but we do know the Acer developer edition two high-resolution displays at 1440 x 1440, a display refresh rate of up to 90 hertz, a 3.5mm jack for built-in audio support, plus HDMI 2.0 and USB 3.0 for connecting to the computer. HP's kit, according to UploadVR, is very similar, with the main differences being a detachable cable and a double-padded headband.
Aside from that, we also know the minimum PC requirements, thanks to The Verge. Your computer will apparently need 4GB of RAM, USB 3.0 port, a graphics card with DirectX 12 support and four CPU cores, including dual-core processors with hyperthreading.
This is great for people who don't want to spend a ton of money on a beastly machine - which is what's needed for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
With that kind of power, you could be looking at apps and games on the same level as mobile VR, or slightly better depending on each headset's specs. However, in our time with Acer's headset, which is supposed to be on the low end of the mixed reality scale, we found the picture quality and refresh rate to be surprisingly close to that of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
In addition, we found Acer's headset specifically to be light and comfortable. There's a lot of space within the headset, so our big, rounded glasses were nicely accommodated. There's also a neat hinge that allows you to flip up the monitor section of the headset in case your eyes need a real quick rest from a different reality.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: The controllers
For a long while, when Microsoft showed off its mixed reality headsets it would hand folks an Xbox controller to make their way through the demos. While effective, it wasn't near immersive enough for mixed reality. At its Build 2017 conference, Microsoft finally showed off its Mixed Reality Controllers.
They look like other virtual reality controllers, but the special trick here is that the little circle doodads near the top of the controllers are peppered with LED lights. These lights are tracked by the mixed reality headset's cameras for precision. So, unlike other the setups of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR, you won't need markers or sensors dotted around your room to keep track of the controllers.
Microsoft roped in Cirque du Soleil, no stranger to mixed and virtual realities, to demo the controllers at Build. The controllers will also come bundled with Acer's mixed reality headset for $399, which is only a $100 more than the mixed reality headset's regular $299 price. They'll be available in fall 2017.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: Price and release date
Since the developer's kit for HoloLens sits at a ridiculously high $3,000, Microsoft's push into this field is a bid to make the tech more accessible. Acer and HP's development kits are available to pre-order as of 11 May, 2017, and they'll begin rolling out in summer 2017. The rest will likely arrive in time for, or just after, the Windows 10 Creators Update in the fall.
During holiday 2017, you'll be able to purchase the Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset for $299 and the HP model for $329. Acer's headset will also come in a bundle with the Mixed Reality Controllers for $399. Similar to how the HoloLens headset was made available, the US and Canada are likely to receive the goods first, with the UK possibly getting them several months later.
The Windows Mixed Reality headsets will also come in a range of prices, starting at the low-end $299 and going on up past $400, like the Lenovo headset. Microsoft says it'll work with its partners to get the controllers in the hands of mixed reality users.