You’ve probably heard the term “mixed reality” come up in conversation about both VR and AR. As you may know, mixed reality refers to a modern, more sophisticated form of augmented reality that combines a suite of environmental sensors, wearable computer hardware, and sophisticated software. A mixed reality system can include full VR, full AR, or other weird in-between blends, such as a sort of reverse AR where real-world objects are displayed in the VR world.
Microsoft, the same people who make Windows and those named “Bill Gates” incredibly rich, are at the forefront of this new revolution in augmented reality. Their Hololens headset made waves when it was first demoed to the public and is still one of the most impressive mixed reality devices you can buy. Of course, to actually own a Hololens you’ll have to part with a small fortune, since it’s mainly aimed at enterprise clients at this point.
Growing the Family
Microsoft has never really been a company that wants to corner the hardware market. They’re all about creating dominant platforms and then inviting everyone else in. One of the main reasons that Windows is such a success is that Microsoft never tried to keep it away from everyone else. Apple didn’t want their operating system running on anything but an Apple, but Windows ran on everything, which means more people wanted to make software for it. It wasn’t necessarily the best operating system, but it was the most useful one thanks to how widespread it became.
Windows Mixed Reality is Microsoft trying to create the same sort of open platform, but this time for the purpose of creating a standard framework for developers to use for their software products. Microsoft provides guidelines on hardware specifications as well as software that helps to interpret a lot of the complicated aspects of mixed reality. This allows developers to concentrate on creating their unique content instead of having to reinvent the mixed reality wheel every time.
Business as Usual
This sort of standardization is both necessary and common in the tech world. That doesn’t mean that Windows Mixed Reality will be the ultimate winner and become the main standard for the technology, but it makes sense for Microsoft to be the one taking the lead here. Apple is on a similar path with their ARkit developer framework; AR will be built into their future phones and other devices from the start.
Microsoft has won at this game before, though. Back in the early days of 3D accelerators there were a number of graphics APIs that were a way to standardize programming for graphics hardware from different manufacturers. In the bad old days you had to write a piece of software for a specific piece of hardware, but with an API you and the hardware makers just make sure you comply with the standard and, viola! – everything works with everything, at least in theory.
Microsoft’s DirectX won out against OpenGL and Glide in the first big standards war in the graphics world. Today DirectX is still dominant, but it’s being challenged again by new standards and it’s not a foregone conclusion that Microsoft will win again.
Windows Mixed Reality Hardware
Anyway, that’s getting off the topic at hand. So let’s look at the physical manifestation of Windows Mixed Reality.
So far there have been two third-party manufacturers that are bringing Windows Mixed Reality products to market. Acer is releasing a Developer Edition headset, and Lenovo (which bought out IBM’s laptop division) is releasing the Lenovo Explorer, which can also be bought with motion controllers.
Both of these headsets share some common features. The most obvious feature is the pair of front-facing cameras. These lenses are set very widely apart, giving the whole thing a rather comical look. You’ll also notice that both have a sort of “flip up” front, which means you can easily switch between being hooked or not, without having to take off the whole thing – something that Sony has already done with its PSVR.
Since they are both built according to the same general guidelines, there’s not that much to differentiate the headsets, but the Acer unit is one that developers will be building their experiences on. So let’s look at its specifications as a sort of base standard for these headsets.
Running the Numbers
The Acer HMD has two very high-resolution LCD screens. Each LCD has 1440×1440 pixels, which you’ll notice makes them perfectly square. That’s actually a good approach, since single panel VR HMDs get split into two squares anyway and a lot of the dual 1080p models end up wasting some of that real-estate. This dual-panel setup provides a 95-degree horizontal field of view. This is perfectly in line with premium VR headsets and certainly a lot better than the Hololens, which is based on a fancy but still immature projection system. Just as with the Oculus, the refresh rate of the panel in the Acer HMD is 90 Hz and it is tethered with a four meter cable.
One major difference between this headset and something like the Oculus or Vive is the fact that it uses “inside-out” motion tracking. The camera that tracks motion to provide the full six degrees of freedom are the ones mounted on the headset itself. This is actually an amazing development, because it means that room-scale VR is possible without the need for external sensors.
Priced to Sell
These Windows Mixed Reality headsets are set to sell at around $350 apiece, which is an incredibly low starting price. That’s almost half as much as the launch price of the consumer Oculus Rift. It’s no surprise Oculus has been slashing the price of its HMD recently.
These headsets are quality devices with cutting-edge technology and yet they are being sold for an absolute song. Honestly, these HMDs went on my shopping list the very moment they were announced.
When the Oculus and Vive originally launched, the minimum computer requirements were quite shocking to a lot of people. Since then the requirements have softened a bit and the GPU technology has become a lot cheaper to boot. The minimum requirement for these Windows headsets are basically the same when it comes to premium VR, but in a very smart move there’s a second lower set of requirements for productivity-type VR and AR.
If you have a computer with an integrated GPU equivalent to the Intel HD Graphics 620, the Windows HMD will clock itself down to 60Hz but still work for Windows itself and the more basic applications. That’s a killer feature for a product that’s supposed to be the real deal mainstream VR solution.
Onto a Winner?
It’s very early days for this new platform, but it looks as if Microsoft has thought of everything that’s holding mainstream AR, VR, and MR back. The only real criticism I have so far, based on the tech demos I’ve seen, is that the inside-out tracking can be a little janky. But that’s with beta developer demos, so we’ll see if it’s an inherent issue.
Other than that, I think they are onto a winner here.