There has been news since the last 10 months or so, that a new kind of VR technology, Microsoft’ Mixed Reality was soon going to be released. It was touted to disrupt the existing VR industry and deliver a path-breaking experience at lesser costs.
Ten months on, Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality has found the October 17th, 2017 release date. But what is a mixed reality? Why is it so called and is it really worth the hype? That’s the question that we will try to answer in this article.
In order to understand all that, we need to have an idea of how VR today works. Virtual Reality is basically a virtual environment that meshes real life movements and actions with the virtual environment and helps us to interact with the content therein.
Virtual Reality today exists in two distinct categories – moderate quality VR powered by smartphones, for example, Google Cardboard, Daydream and Samsung’s Gear VR. And a more immersive VR experience powered by a high-end PC and hardcore VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
While the first experience lacks in the finer quality, it’s light on the pocket. Oculus Rift and HTC Vive on the other hand, provide more immersive VR experience and for long-term use, but cost a lot more. While the Cardboard and Gear VR cost $20 and $100 respectively.
The Rift and Vive cost $499 and $599 respectively, inclusive of the controllers. These prices are the result of deep discounts and price cuts which were previously non-existent.
Microsoft offers a meshed experience called Mixed Reality. It’s called Mixed Reality because it uses elements of the real world and the VR environment in tandem. Instead of creating an immersive virtual environment inside the headset display, Windows MR (mixed reality) instead allows the user to see the world around and overlays elements of VR.
If you put on an MR headset, you would basically still see the world around you (which is not the case for VR headsets) and interact with virtual elements. On the other hand, you could create a virtual environment and add real elements as well to it.
As a result, MR not only offers something VR doesn’t, it also offers the same thing VR does. So, you’ll be able to use holographic interface meshed with real-world to create new environments, as well as enjoy games, apps and videos in VR environment.
Microsoft uses, what it calls ‘Inside-Outside tracking’, to ensure that while wearing the headset, you still have access to what’s happening outside.
In effect, this creates a much more interactive environment than VR and still keep them connected to reality to avoid any accidents. It is able to do so primarily due to the inbuilt camera in the headset and the integrated graphics.
Now, Microsoft isn’t producing these headsets themselves. Instead, they have invited OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) such as Dell, HP and Acer to use the technology and build Windows Mixed Reality headsets.
Dell, HP and Acer have all released their own version of the Windows Mixed Reality. The headsets cost around $299-399 without the controllers. The entire kit with the controllers included will cost another extra $100.
The Windows MR has two levels of use – ‘regular’ and ‘ultra’. While ‘regular’ operates on the integrated graphics that comes with the headset the ‘ultra’ version needs it to be hooked up to a computer. However, even though it uses a computer, MR headsets do not need as high-end specs as demanded by Rift and Vive.
In addition, MR headsets also promise 1440p per eye displays at lower price points than Rift and Vive. However, since the recent price cuts on Rift and Vive, it remains to be seen whether MR still retains the advantage or has it been neutered.
Experience wise, the regular level of use offers Gear VR like display and immersion. The main reason might be the 60fps display instead of the 90fps normally afforded by high-end rigs like Rift. However, it stands to reason that since the regular version is dependent on the integrated graphics, 90fps might not be possible.
Instead, using a PC to hook it up, can help increase the immersion and display resolution. It needs to be understood that these headsets should be able to allow extended exposure without any ill-effects on the user. Low display specs affect the user well-being and can even cause nausea.
Even though the user experience is marred in the regular mode, it still needs to be understood that one can still experience smoother environment and immersion once the headset can connect to a PC and use its graphics card and processor power.
At this level, MR still beats Rift and Vive in my view, considering that we are not comparing VR headsets, but an MR headset with VR headsets. Since MR’s use extends to real-life augmented applications, the scope for development is significantly increased.
Windows MR still manages to provide at least the same, if not better, experience and convenience provided by smartphone VR headsets and PC-based VR headsets with the room-scale environment. Given the price point expected for the MR headsets, it’s still a long way from mainstream adoption but should definitely encourage both VR enthusiast and general consumers to take up MR.