Microsoft’s ‘mixed reality’ headsets are a bit of a mixed bag

About ten months ago, Microsoft promised the VR industry a shot in the arm and an update to PC-tethered systems by way of their “mixed reality” platform and OEM partner-crafted headsets which would boast inside-out tracking, lower system spec requirements, 1440p per eye displays and a much lower price point, with headsets starting at just $299.

Many of the headsets will be arriving this fall with full details being shared at IFA this week for some of the partners. I had a chance to test out a couple of the consumer-ready headsets from Acer and Dell earlier this month and while these “mixed reality” headsets boast a couple pretty clear advantages over the hardware offerings from HTC and Oculus, I have some doubts that they will do much to open up the VR market’s appeal to new users.

When the Windows MR headsets were unveiled, one of the main selling points of the devices were their low price-point. The promise of a $299 VR headset running on rigs powered by integrated graphics seemed to be a game-changer.

Facebook appears to have effectively neutered this impact significantly through their aggressive price cuts on the Oculus Rift. In the last six months, Oculus has sliced the all-in price of its headset and motion controllers to $399 (the price will return to $499 after a temporary sale ends), additionally, last week brought the price of the Vive to $599.

Prices of Windows MR headsets vary from $299 to $399, with some slight differences in build quality and ergonomics while technically they remain pretty much identical to each other. If you want the motion controllers it’s an extra hundred bucks. So, all-in it’s around $399-$499 to get into Windows Mixed Reality. For these prices you unfortunately don’t seem to get nearly the level of refinement offered by the Rift or Vive in terms of build quality or overall precision.

The area where price would seem to be called into question most is on what’s powering the headset. Windows Mixed Reality has a pair of modes: regular and “Ultra,” the latter of which relies on a PC with specs similar to what you need to operate a Rift or Vive, i.e. a several hundred dollar dedicated graphics card and a decent CPU. More interestingly, the regular spec Windows MR platform is capable of running on a cheap computer running integrated graphics, which I also tried. How is that experience? Odd.

When playing on systems with integrated graphics, Microsoft has made the poor choice of downgrading the headset’s frame rate from 90fps to 60fps, a move which I can guarantee will make a lot of people’s first VR experience a nauseating one. I wasn’t in the headset for more than two minutes before the warning signs availed themselves. The fact that the headset is positionally tracked helps, but extensive movement is not recommended and performance felt on-par with smartphone platforms like Daydream or the Gear VR.

For “Ultra,” things were much smoother. I demoed a number of VR experiences and on-average things felt comparable to an experience on the Gear VR while the higher-resolution displays offered crisp views. Notably during a 30-minute play session with the headset on a Mixed Reality Ultra-specced PC (with a 1080 GPU no less), it was difficult to notice any obvious issues with the headset’s lower-quality LCD displays.

There’s a lot to play. I demoed Superhot VR, Rec Room, Arizona Sunshine and a few other familiar titles. One of today’s big announcements is that Steam games will be playable on the Windows Mixed Reality platform, a big, if not expected and necessary, win.

On the topic of clear wins, the platform’s overall tracking is indeed a game-changer without qualification and an evolution that will undoubtedly be coming other headsets soon. It’s based on HoloLens tracking tech which is regarded quite highly so it’s not a huge surprise. Of course, the Windows MR headsets also have the key benefit of being tethered and not facing the same power restrictions for tracking that some future mobile headsets undoubtedly will.

Getting rid of external sensors has been something that other VR companies have expressed clear interest in but few have delivered the quality needed for high-quality immersive experiences. Microsoft has, and the ease of use that results is probably the clearest differentiating factor it has from the broader competition. It’s lacking in quality at times, but it seems to remain about as reliable as the outside-in tracking on the PlayStation VR from my brief experience.

Setup is pretty simple for the play space and basically just involves grabbing the headset and walking around the borders of your VR area so that its cameras can pick up on the space’s 3D mesh to make its job of tracking the room a bit easier. It will feel familiar to users on the Vive and Rift but unlike those sets processes, that’s where it ends. From there you jump into the Windows Cliff House and get to playing.

The performance of the controllers was much better than expected given that Microsoft has foregone the complex sensor-based infrared technology Valve and Oculus have implemented in favor of computer vision-driven solutions. Microsoft motion controllers give off a bit of a disco ball vibe as they’re tracked by a number of shining embedded LEDs that convey the controllers’ exact positioning to the headset.

It was a short, but telling demo that highlighted where the headsets are and where they will likely be at launch this holiday.

The Microsoft Mixed Reality hardware has some key strengths and pitfalls that may make this a great option for enterprise users looking for hardware that can quickly adapt to different locations and system specs, but for consumers, the price drops from HTC and Oculus make the platform a tough one to recommend at this point in time, even though there’s clearly a lot the other hardware manufacturers can learn from Microsoft’s first serious foray into virtual reality.