Did Microsoft make a mistake by labeling its brand of immersive digital experiences “mixed-reality”?
When the company introduced HoloLens a few years ago, it seemed like an apt description. The standalone visor overlaid digital objects onto the real world to basically give people Terminator Vision.
But Microsoft did not invent the concept or phrase Mixed Reality. It was already popular in academia, a shorthand for describing experiences that used visuals and sensors to combine virtual elements with the real world.
And now that Microsoft is using the phrase to broadly describe its augmented and virtual reality efforts, Mixed Reality is being used to advertise a wide range of products built for Windows 10.
Microsoft wants developers approaching it this way, too, writing programs that can be used on a HoloLens and also mixed reality headsets plugged into to a PC. Both are powered by Windows 10.
With Windows 10 Fall Creators Update shipping soon, the full mixed reality platform will finally hit desktops and laptops, providing users who have the right hardware with a solid virtual reality experience.
Last spring, Microsoft and a few hardware partners introduced the first series of affordable “mixed reality” headsets. In addition to being thousands of dollars cheaper than HoloLens (which technically isnot a consumer device), the mixed reality headsets were designed to be tethered to a PC.
They also completely occluded your vision and were used for experiences that have been traditionally been referred to as virtual reality.
I tried a few of these headsets last spring and at a special Microsoft Build developers event. I enjoyed the Cliff House interface, Microsoft’s answer to, “What if the your computer desktop was a house?” Using an Xbox controller, I could move about the home and engage with various programs like the Edge Browser with relative ease.
I must admit, though, something was missing.
When Microsoft partner Acer unveiled its Mixed Reality controllers, I realized it might be the one piece of hardware necessary to take Microsoft’s VR platform (Windows 10) to the next level and put it on par with Sony’s PlayStation VR in terms of the experience. I’ve used that headset, as well as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, along with their respective, proprietary controllers.
In each case, the controllers connect me with the virtual experience in a way not possible with standard game controllers or, worse, a keyboard. (Even the popular and somewhat less powerful Samsung Galaxy Gear VR, which uses a phone to power VR experiences, benefits greatly from the recent introduction of a handheld controller.) For Microsoft’s Mixed Reality headsets, the motion controllers have just as big of an impact.
The new Acer mixed reality controllers will be sold in a bundle with the company’s headset for $300. The controllers look somewhat like Oculus Touch, with a short handle, a few buttons, and a large ring at the top. On the Acer one, the ring juts out from the front of the controller and is covered with constellation of bright LEDs, which are used for positioning by the headset’s two external cameras. Each controller also includes an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which helps the system keep track of the controller even when it’s outside the headset’s view.
Microsoft put an Acer mixed reality headset on my head and handed me two motion controllers at a recent press event. Even though I couldn’t see the controllers or my own hands, I could see virtual representations of the controllers in the VR view.
Using the controllers, I could point a laser-beam-like target at whatever I wanted to launch. There’s a trigger on the underside of each controller and a joystick and D-Pad on top (along with a Windows button to return to the home interface). The controllers feel good and are intuitive to use, but the rings are large enough that I accidentally smacked them together.
I played Luna, Space PirateTrainer, Superhot and Rec Room. In one game, I was battling humanoids that appeared to be made of red candy. Holding the controls, I punched and shot them into submission. In another game, I had my choice of weapons and could reach behind my back in the real world to swap them out (the IMU tracked this motion that was out of range of the headsets camera).
All these games ran on a PC with more powerful, discrete graphics (like an Nvidia graphics GPU).
However, unlike Oculus Rift, which demands only the most powerful PCs, Microsoft’s Mixed Reality platform can run on standard PCs with integrated graphics, as well. It does so by reducing the display refresh rate for 90 hz to 60 hz, which is at the bottom range of what most people can view without detecting screen flicker. Microsoft announced the two levels of VR Microsoft Mixed Reality support in a blog post on Monday. In it, Microsoft also announced that games from Steam, Valve’s gaming distribution platform, will run on Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets.
Microsoft took away the controllers and moved me to a standard PC with integrated graphics. It, too, was connected to an Acer Mixed Reality headset, but instead of controllers, I get a single Xbox controller. Then we launched an immersive version of Minecraft.
As I moved about the virtual Minecraft landscape, I didn’t detect any screen flicker or stutter. However, unlike anything else I tried that day, the motion in Minecraft often left me feeling a bit queasy. Microsoft execs said they’re aware of this and say it’s related to the way Minecraft is designed (you kind of slide along the landscape) and are working on adjusting the motion for VR.
When Microsoft releases the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update and these headsets and controllers start shipping in time for the holidays, consumers will have a new, affordable, and surprisingly immersive VR choice. Now, if Microsoft can only convince everyone that Mixed Reality is Virtual Reality, too.