Hands-on with IFA’s mixed reality headsets

Hands-on with IFA's mixed reality headsets

Cheap headsets that might actually be competitive? We were as surprised as this Dell rep.

IT’S BEEN ABOUT months since Microsoft promoted its ‘mixed reality’ platform: a confusing term that’s really muddied the waters of VR and AR. Despite that, Redmond pressed ahead and secured several OEM partners, each building headsets with starting at prices as low as $300.

That was a really compelling offer 10 months ago, but since then Facebook’s continued lowering of the Oculus Rift’s price has been a bit of a slap in the face to Microsoft. The Rift and controllers now stand at $500, while the HTC Vive is $600.

OEM Mixed Reality headsets range from $300 to $400, with controllers adding another $100 or so on top of that – so what do you get for your money?

For a start, build quality and specs are pretty similar all round. The headsets are built to a standard, and don’t tend to exceed that. We didn’t see any headsets limited to 60Hz; it appears that everyone is shooting for the 90Hz refresh rate specified in the Mixed Reality Ultra spec, which Microsoft announced the Monday of IFA week.

alt=''Asus used an interesting polygonal design

Regular MR PCs, which can use integrated graphics, will be capable of driving headsets at 60Hz and are limited to three VR apps open at once. MR Ultra PCs will reach 90Hz VR and are not limited on app use. They also (we assume) have higher-fidelity graphics.

Also part of the Microsoft announcement was the news that Steam games will be playable on MR headsets, which will be a huge boost to the content offering of Microsoft’s platform.

We had the chance to test devices from Dell, Acer, Asus and Lenovo at the show. On a first impression, they are all ‘fine’ for consumers – but serious users should look elsewhere.

Big Brother Microsoft is watching you
Let’s start with the good: tracking. The in-built cameras (one on either side of the visor) do an excellent job of locating and positioning the user in the virtual world; dodging bullets and landing punches was no problem. This technology can genuinely be called a game-changer for VR, as it avoids the irritation of mounting sensors around a room: just pick up, walk around the edges of your space so the cameras can define borders, and play.

On the negative side, the sensors used by more expensive VR platforms enable full-body tracking at all times. The MR products require you to have the controllers (which are tracked using computer vision, focused on the LEDs studded across them) near to, if not directly in, your line of sight for their movements to be registered by the front-facing cameras.

alt=''Dell’s headset looked like a white box

Companies like HTC have said that they want to ditch the external sensors, but today the Vive’s tracking is simply more reliable. Is that a worthwhile trade-off for convenience?

The controllers themselves (when they were being tracked) performed very well. Movement was the through the (by now widely-used) point-and-click teleportation method, which utilised the joystick on either control. Trigger, side-grip and Windows keys are also built in, although the latter is a bit awkwardly placed; we hit it by accident a few times, exiting our game sessions, and saw other journalists do the same thing. Aside from that minor complaint, performance was smooth and reliable. 

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