The Acer Mixed Reality headset is just one of several portals into Microsoft's brand spanking new virtual reality ecosystem, which it confusingly refers to as Windows Mixed Reality. That might seem like a contradiction, and Microsoft has muddied the definitions a little here, but all you need to know is that this is definitely VR; there's no way of seeing through the headset into the real world, at least not yet.
Microsoft does bring the real and virtual together in some other unique ways, which we'll delve into a little later on, but for all intents and purposes this is a virtual reality headset, and the platform as a whole β made of VR headsets from Asus, Lenovo and others too β is going head to head against the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
But things have changed a little since Microsoft first promised "powerful and affordable VR", so is it still a tempting proposition? Does it match its biggest rivals on power and value? Read on and find out.
Acer Mixed Reality headset: Design, controllers and tracking
Look, if I came knocking on your door and told you that Acer had made a VR headset, you would probably a) call the cops and b) picture a very unimaginatively designed VR HMD. And you'd be right on both accounts. Acer's blue helmet is totally fine β not ugly, not beautiful β and about as inspired as its name, but to be honest, with these things designed to be worn in the privacy of the home, does anyone really care that much about how they look? Newsflash: you're always going to look stupid with a VR headset on.
How they feel is a different matter, of course, and I'm glad to find that Acer's model is more comfortable than it looks. It's light, and the weight that it does have is distributed across the headband so you don't feel pressure against your face. Yes, it's very plastic; it's also practical. After long play sessions I still felt like I could happily go on, where in some cases with VR I've felt like my head needed to take a rest.
Here's a really cool thing though: You can flip that front visor up too if you want to check your phone/apologise to the dog for stepping on it, without lifting the headset off entirely. It's a great feature that you won't find on any of the other major headsets outside of Mixed Reality right now.
On the back of the strap is a dialer, similar to one you'll find on other headsets, which lets you adjust the tightness. On Acer's I've found that to be particularly important, as the design makes it hard to maintain the sweet spot. I often have to adjust it slightly when the image begins to blur in order to find that point of clarity again. The Vive, for example, does a better job of hugging to my head.
When you are in the sweet spot, the picture stands up to the competition. A resolution of 1400 x 1400 per eye puts the Acer above the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PS VR, which all come in at 1080 x 1200 per eye β though Samsung's Odyssey goes even higher at 1400 x 1600. The Acer also has a field of view of 95 degrees, which is slightly less than some other MR headsets and the Rift and Vive, but not dramatically.
Overall, the image quality has been surprisingly good. There's still a bit of a screen door effect in the LCD when I stop and stare, but the higher resolution means it's a bit less noticeable here. Like I said, it's the challenge of keeping that sweet spot precise that's the biggest negative here (and the answer seems to be to just make sure the dial is always turned as tight as possible without hurting yourself).
Then we have the controllers. These are bundled in with the headset and each have Acer's logo emblazoned on the handle, but you're going to get the same ones with whichever MR headset you buy. They look somewhere between the Oculus Touch and Vive wand controllers β with the build quality of neither. They feel a little more cheap and plasticky, although the sparkly lights that appear when they're on are, admittedly, hypnotic. On each controller is a thumbstick, a touchpad (again, a combination of Vive and Touch features), an option button, a Windows button, a side button and a trigger.
So where are the external sensors to keep track of all this, you might ask? Well that's the magic of Windows Mixed Reality: there aren't any. All of the headsets have inside-out tracking, meaning you can walk around in VR without any fear of occlusion. You do still have to set up a play space, and you'll see a grid appear in the VR world should you get too close to your parameters, but the added freedom makes Acer's headset feel so much more accessible.
As for how the tracking compares to the Rift, Vive and PS VR, it's, again, been surprisingly good. I'd had some demos with these headsets throughout the year, but this was my chance to push the limits a bit more. So far there has been only one occasion where I had suddenly shrunk and had to restart when the calibration went AWOL, but otherwise the head tracking has been smooth. Controller tracking has been a little more spotty, with them occasionally going off at funny angles, but nothing that's had me alarmed. The tracking doesn't feel quite as smooth and precise as the Oculus Touch or Vive wands, but if you haven't used either of those before, I don't think you'd feel disappointed here.
Acer Mixed Reality headset: What even is Windows Mixed Reality?
So, Microsoft explained this to us a while ago, but when it talks about Mixed Reality it's referring to an entire platform, with HoloLens at one end and these VR headsets at the other. Over time, it sees this all converging β and it probably will β but for the here and now Mixed Reality on these headsets is just VR. They do have cameras on the front, but these are only for the purpose of tracking your movement, and chances are you won't see any sort of passthrough feature soon.
There is, however, a sort of "mixed"β¦ness to the Cliff House, which is the name of the virtual home you'll be living in when in Mixed Reality. Everything you do is booted up from here: apps live on walls and can be moved, and some have designated rooms: the living room has a huge TV for booting up 360 videos, but you can just as easily create a window elsewhere to perform the same function. This is your house; go nuts.
Naturally, as soon as I discovered the app store of "holograms", objects such as chairs or animated animals that can be dragged and dropped at will, I became fully invested in decorating my new home.
What's wrong, never seen three chimpanzees eating pizza on giant floating burgers before?
This is what I love about Cliff House, the freedom to just muck around, but be warned that chucking all those windows and novelty food items about can get the place messy pretty quickly. Thankfully everything can be dismissed with a simple click of its little X icon. As far as movement goes, while you can walk around in your designated play space, you also use the controller thumbsticks to teleport short distances around the house. It's a locomotion technique we've seen used in plenty of other games and experiences, and not once has it made me feel ill.
While none of this bridges the real and virtual worlds, it does bring the VR virtual and outside-of-VR virtual together. For example, I checked my emails and even sent one using one of the apps, then booted up Skype in another. All of this happened within the Cliff House experience, never once requiring me to take off the headset (I could log into my Microsoft and Gmail accounts in there, via a giant pop-up keyboard).
This is a glimpse into how Microsoft sees the future, where both productivity and fun happens in the virtual world.
Where Mixed Reality already deserves plaudits is in that ease of use Microsoft promised. Once you have the Fall Creators Edition, the Acer HMD is essentially plug-and-play. As soon as you've plugged it into the USB and HDMI, the Mixed Reality program will automatically boot. What's more, setup is a breeze.
The minimum specs for Windows Mixed Reality are very reasonable too, helping to further lower the barrier of entry. In fact, there are two tiers of compatible PC: Mixed Reality Ready and Mixed Reality Ultra. At the standard level, which will be mostly for machines with integrated graphics, the frame rate sits at 60fps, while Ultra-level PCs will get 90 frames per second. Some games will only work on the latter, says Microsoft, and that's the version I've tested on, so I can't yet speak as to how the lower setting compares.
Acer Mixed Reality headset: Games, videos and more
Which brings me to the "content", stuff that lives outside of emails and Microsoft apps. Right now, the games library is paltry, and that's because the Mixed Reality ecosystem is only just getting off the ground. Some familiar titles have already made their way across, including Superhot, Fantastic Contraption, Space Pirate Trainer and the Jaunt VR app. The new Halo Recruit game, which is really just a target-practice demo, is also now available to download (for free) and play.
It's slim pickings for now, but all expectations are that this will change quickly with most of these headsets rolling out before the holidays. This is only just getting off the ground remember, with Mixed Reality only arriving on Windows 10 a matter of days ago with the Fall Creators Update. We revisit most of our reviews on Wareable, but I'll be coming back to this one sooner than I normally would because I appreciate it's still very early days β and SteamVR is coming, which will open the door for a lot more games.
But there is an immediate problem I see, and it goes back to those changes that have happened since Microsoft first announced Mixed Reality. Oculus has been aggressive in its pricing over the past few months, and right now the Rift bundled with controllers costs $399 β the same as Acer's HMD. Mixed reality was meant to be about an affordable alternative, but instead there's a parity with the Rift. It's still cheaper than the Vive (for now) but a lot of VR wannabes are going to compare this against Oculus, which is still the poster-child for VR. Acer can compete on ease of use and compatibility, but on games? Not yet.
So while Acer is offering a relatively low-priced way into VR, that price no longer seems as tasty as it once did. This headset is good, don't get me wrong, but with all other options considered, I have more faith in the Mixed Reality platform than I do Acer's portal into it.
- Accessible PC VR
- High resolution lenses
- No external sensors needed
- Mixed Reality lacks software
- Design can impact viewing quality
- Controller tracking can be spotty