Microsoft is already firmly involved in the world of AR with HoloLens, but its VR headsets, which it dubs 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 the masses. But, at the same time, Microsoft is aiming to make Mixed Reality stand out from efforts from Oculus, HTC and PlayStation.
Read next: Best VR headsets 2017
As we inch toward the public debut of Windows Mixed Reality in holiday 2017, Microsoft and its partners are slowly but surely dropping 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 even is it?
Yeah, what exactly is this thing? Microsoft sees mixed reality as a spectrum on which AR and VR sit on opposite ends. On one side, you have the physical world augmented with virtual objects, which is where HoloLens sits.
On the other side, you have a pure virtual world that doesn't interact much with physical reality. The way Microsoft sees it, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift aren't exactly pure virtual reality because you're still interacting with the physical world to simulate a virtual one. There are touch and motion controllers, and sensors all over your room - Microsoft refers to this as augmented virtual.
And then there's the desktop, which Microsoft also considers in its definition of mixed reality. It wants to bring the desktop, a traditionally virtual 2D experience, into a 3D experience that mixes ideas. For instance, you can bring up the desktop in a virtual world and interact with it in a three dimensional way that you can't do in reality.
Microsoft is attempting to differentiate its headsets from the likes of PSVR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift by incorporating more elements from its HoloLens project to make it a more well-rounded mixed experience. That means that each third-party headset has a pair of depth-sensing cameras on the front, allowing us to have room-scale tracking without having to fill the house with sensors.
Somewhat confusingly, Microsoft actually used the VR label when it announced the original Windows 10 headset last year, though it must be noted that it doesn't really care whether you call them VR headsets or MR headsets - it just likes using the term mixed reality.
Regardless, Microsoft believes that mixed reality, with the help of the company's scale and experience with software platforms like Windows, can bring affordable and easy-to-use plug and play VR experiences for the masses. The headsets don't require as much grunt work from your PC, allowing Microsoft to make VR experiences for even those with PCs that sport integrated graphics (even though it'll be a slightly compromised experience).
In our hands-on with Windows Mixed Reality headsets thus far, we've found the experience more skewed to virtual than augmented, but we're told that in the future you'll be able to use pass-through cameras to map out your own apartment or insert holograms.
Best Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets
While a whole bunch of Windows Mixed Reality headsets went live at CES back on January, we've gotten a steady stream of news about them as the year as gone and on.
Most of the headsets have a lot in common, including 90 frames per second support on Windows 10 PCs with dedicated graphics cards and 60 frames per second on Windows 10 PCs with integrated graphics cards. They also have 1440 x 1440 LCD displays and, typically, flip-up visors so you can pop back into reality at any time.
So, that begs the question: Which headsets can you use to experience Windows Mixed Reality this fall? Let's take a look.
Acer's HMD is probably the most famous Windows Mixed Reality headset out there. It's in all of the press images and all of the promotional videos; it's also blue and bright and fits in with Microsoft's overall design aesthetic. If there's an all-rounder in the Windows Mixed Reality family, it's this one. From comfort to performance, it's the most balanced of them all, even if it does just have 95-degree field of view. You'll be able to pick it up $299 solo and $399 with the motion controllers.
First look: Acer HMD review
Dell's headset, while a bit heavier than the others, is still damn comfy. The secret is in its weight distribution, which never makes it feel like any portion of your head is getting squashed. And sure, it might look like rejected Baymax cosplay, but those creepy eyes are kind of cute. You can pick this headset, which sports a 110-degree field of view, up for $359.99 solo or $459.99 bundled with motion controllers.
First look: Dell Mixed Reality Visor review
Lightness is the name of the game on the Lenovo Explorer. It weighs in at a nice 380g, which is lighter than both the 400g Asus and 589g Dell. It's also got a wide field of view at 110-degrees, wider than Samsung Gear VR but not as wide as HTC Vive. The Explorer will cost you $349.99 solo and $449 with motion controllers.
First look: Lenovo Explorer review
HP's headset confirms that a design theme may be in vogue among Windows Mixed Reality manufacturers: they want to make you look like RoboCop, putting that glossy strip across where your eyes would go. HP's headset is one of the cheapest at $329 solo, but it also comes with a 95-degree field of view. There's no pricing on any motion controller bundle - yet.
If you're looking for a unique entry in the world of Windows Mixed Reality, look no further than Asus. There's that 3D polygonal design on the front, and the company is also promising 3K displays. It's also the most expensive of them all, coming in at €449, which converts to about $535. We'll have to wait for motion controller bundle pricing.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: What about Xbox?
Microsoft is wholly focused on Windows 10 initially, telling Wareable back at E3 2017 that it believes "Windows PC is the best platform for mixed reality" right now. However, Xbox head Phil Spencer also says the new Xbox One X, due out this November, is VR ready.
Microsoft previously said its plan is to bring mixed reality content to the Xbox One family of devices in 2018, but its new vagueness suggests that plan might have changed.
Windows Mixed Reality is ready and waiting for Xbox, but it's up to the Xbox team to choose when they want to jump in. They would essentially be going head to head against PlayStation VR, despite WMR helping Microsoft bring something a little different to the party.
Putting on our speculation hats, we'd guess that once Microsoft and its Xbox team are done launching its new Xbox One X console later this year, that it might be full steam ahead on mixed reality. Perhaps we'll learn more at E3 2018. Until then, this is everything we know about Xbox One Mixed Reality.
Microsoft Mixed Reality: The content
Great hardware is absolutely nothing without some great software to back it up. Thus far, Microsoft has shown off Cliffhouse, a virtual space that essentially acts as your hub in Windows MR. You wander around a fancy virtual house opening up programs and diving into experiences.
This is most of what we've seen so far, but the company has expanded that recently, working with Valve to make SteamVR content available for Windows Mixed Reality. That means you'll be able to play popular VR games like Superhot, Rec Room, Arizona Sunshine and Space Pirate Trainer to play with. There'll also be some passive experiences like HoloTour.
Microsoft, of course, has a handful of video game studios under its umbrella that are particularly good at creating content. So, of course, it'll be leveraging them to make stuff for Windows Mixed Reality. We were able to play an early version of Minecraft for Windows Mixed Reality, for instance. Microsoft has also announced that 343 Industries, the studio currently behind the mainline Halo series, is working on mixed reality experiences for the future. We don't know if these are full-on games or little fun excursions, but we know for sure that Halo is coming to Windows Mixed Reality in some form.
On the other hand, Microsoft is also Microsoft, and has a suite of productivity software like Word, Excel, Outlook, OneNote and more that it could and probably will port over to Mixed Reality. Microsoft does see mixed reality as the next computing platform, so why wouldn't they bring their suite of software along for the ride?
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 revealed 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.
In our hands-on demoes with the controllers, we found them to be quite effective. They're responsive and light, and if you've used Vive's wand controllers, you know what to expect here. The one problem with them is, once in a while, if they're not in field of view of your headset's cameras they can get a bit lost. They still work, mostly because the controllers' onboard sensors estimate where the controllers are until they return to view, but it's clear this needs a little tweaking. Still, these are worthwhile controllers that are sure to handle anything Windows Mixed Reality throws at them.
The controllers will be bundled with WMR headsets for a $100 premium and are available in fall 2017.
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