LAS VEGAS — Virtual reality has its fair share of naysayers. It’s too expensive, they say. It’s too hard to translate across devices. It makes you sick.
Microsoft wants to dispel those notions with its new Windows Mixed Reality headsets, a catalog of low-cost devices made by partners using the same technology developed for the powerful HoloLens “mixed reality” headset.
The headsets hit the market a few months ago, and we got a chance to get our hands on one of them at CES: the Dell Visor. It costs $449 for the headset and a pair of controllers.
I’ve tried out a lot of VR and AR headsets in recent months, and the first thing I noticed was that this one was actually pretty comfortable. Often I leave a VR demo with a bit of a headache or a sore neck because of an awkward fit or weighty device. But this time around I felt fine, other than the cold I’ve been carrying around all week.
When I fired up the device, I was dropped into a virtual living room, with Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana as my guide. Navigating the space was pretty simple once I figured out where the four different functions were on the controllers. For this demo I had a couple active options, including a Halo training game, and a few of videos of skiing, swimming with dolphins and more.
I was able to whip my head around in any direction without getting that nauseous feeling that sometimes comes with laggy VR devices. Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s communications director for Windows and Devices, said that effect happens when the technology isn’t fast enough to match what we see with how our bodies move.
“As we evolved, we didn’t have cars driving 60 mph and we didn’t have VR headsets,” Sullivan said. “So if there was a mismatch of what you saw and what your body was telling you, it was probably because you ate a poison mushroom and you were going to die, so you better throw up.”
A concept called “six degrees of freedom” allows users to look in a variety of directions without experiencing nausea-inducing lag. Because the mixed reality headsets are powered by the same code that goes into HoloLens, the experience is better than you’d expect for a low-cost device.
There were moments when I looked around and what I saw felt slightly out of focus, but not enough to throw off the overall experience. We didn’t get a super deep dive during the 30-minute interview and demo, so we weren’t able to really take the device to its limits.
In addition to the Dell headset, Samsung, HP, Lenovo and Acer all make Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Prices vary from $399 to $499. Some models can be purchased without the controllers, dropping the price by another $100 or so.
HoloLens is not yet available to the public. Microsoft offers a $3,000 option for developers and a $5,000 commercial suite.
Sullivan says Microsoft is one of few companies that could develop something like HoloLens. The combination of hardware and software that goes into the device, he said, as well as some of the technical innovations that had to happen, makes for quite the challenge. After building the platform for Windows Mixed Reality, Microsoft turned to partners to manufacture their headsets because of their ability to build and scale these products at a low cost.
One drawback to the Windows Mixed Reality headsets is that they are tethered to a PC that powers the experience. That limits movements and creates the possibility of tripping over a cord in the real world while immersed in a digital one.
HoloLens is untethered, a self-contained computer that projects digital objects into real life. But because it is self-contained, it is limited somewhat by all the processing it has to do on the spot without the help of a powerful PC.
But that doesn’t change how Microsoft creates the baseline technology that powers the devices, both tethered and dependent on a computer and untethered but burdened with the task of processing everything.
“The idea that we treat that whole continuum holistically and have a platform that enables devices and experiences that expand the continuum is a big difference in our approach,” Sullivan said. “The applications that run are the same applications. You don’t target a different execution environment; you write a mixed reality application and it runs, whether it’s a Dell headset or a Samsung headset or even HoloLens.”