Microsoft floods the virtual reality market with new VR glasses. Should they be preferred to Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? And what is the Redmond strategy with Windows Mixed Reality? We tried three Windows glasses from Lenovo, Medion and Acer.
A comparison between the Acer, Lenovo and Medion VR glasses shows that, apart from the plastic coating, the devices were all built on exactly the same basis. The complete inner workings of the glasses, including the lenses and the tracking cameras embedded in the housing, are identical in the tested Windows Mixed Reality glasses and in the same position. The glasses from Lenovo and Medion only differ in color anyway, since the Aldi supplier is part of Lenovo’s corporate structure.
Microsoft’s strategy: empower third-party manufacturers
It quickly becomes clear: Microsoft has delivered a blueprint that makes it very easy for third-party manufacturers to bring slight variations to the market. Apart from the design and optional modifications to the head mount, Acer, Lenovo and Co. did not have to invest in development or even research.
The amount of technically identical devices leads to an interesting side-effect: Microsoft turns the electrical market into a VR optician, where you choose the glasses of your choice based on design and fit instead of technical specifications. This makes sense because preferences for design and head shapes are very different.
Lots of plastic, nice design
While Oculus and Sony tried to give their respective VR glasses a touch of premium, the tested Windows glasses offer very simple plastic housings without finesse. They’re not ugly, even quite stylish depending on your preference – but high-end feels different. Positive features of all WMR glasses are their slim form factor and low weight.
Just as praiseworthy is the practical folding mechanism: Like a visor, the front can be folded up for a quick change between realities. The twist lock on the headband works well and is clearly superior to at least the standard HTC Vive mount. For a comparable bracket, HTC requires the Audio Deluxe Strap for more than 100 Euro in addition to the already more expensive VR glasses. However, the headphones are already integrated, which is not the case with the WMR glasses.
What is really disturbing is the narrow field of vision of the goggles with a clear diving goggle effect. This is a step backwards compared to the current PC generation, which is not compensated by the slightly higher screen resolution. This is primarily to the benefit of fonts that are much easier to read.
The WMR hardware is more practical than high quality
The colors of the LC displays are fainter than those of the OLED displays from Vive and Rift, and despite the slightly higher resolution, a clear rasterization can still be seen. The cheap impression of the glasses is reinforced by the fact that, unlike with Vive and Rift, there is no possibility to adjust the lens distance. People who wear glasses should definitely test different models.
Like the WMR glasses, the 3D controllers are more practical than high quality. They are conceived as a mixture of Vive and touch controllers and offer both touchpad and analog stick. A finger recognition like with Oculus Touch is not integrated. Just like the WMR glasses, the controllers fulfil their purpose without coming up with innovations.
Good tracking, but not perfect
The capture of the 3D controllers using integrated tracking cameras works surprisingly well. Nevertheless, there are occasional dropouts and jolts, for example when the controllers are brought very close to the glasses in order to view a virtual object at close range. If the controllers disappear from the field of view of the cameras for a long time, they may not be registered immediately when re-entering the detection area.
- Although this does not render the controllers unusable, they are still less reliable than their PC competitors.
- Feel the controllers and VR glasses reach about 90 percent of the precision of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. That’s fine, but highscore hunters and precise workers should notice the difference.
- The controllers are identical for all tested glasses, they differ only by the printed product name – which is always in the same place in the same white color.
Setup is easy if your Windows system is prepared and you have a compatible Bluetooth adapter. For a Windows 10 version with Fall Creators Update installed, simply insert your glasses to start the Mixed Reality portal. This guides the user through a short setup – about five minutes – and then downloads about two gigabytes of software. The VR glasses are then ready for use. Switching between different models on the same PC also went smoothly.
You have to buy the Bluetooth dongle separately. Why?
It’s really annoying that Microsoft doesn’t include a suitable Bluetooth dongle for the 3D controllers or – even simpler – integrates the Bluetooth connection directly into the VR glasses. In our test, only the third BT dongle was able to establish a perfect connection with the controllers, which could only be set up correctly after a new installation of the WMR portal. In addition, no warning is displayed if the controller connection via Bluetooth is not optimal. Instead, the devices simply track worse.
There was something else, wasn’t there? Oh yes: Contents! The fact that the Windows Mixed Reality initiative looks a bit like being knitted with a hot needle is especially noticeable in the software: When the glasses were launched, Microsoft only offered around 40 virtual reality apps in its own WMR store. This is little compared to Oculus, Valve and HTC, who have been filling their stores with apps for around 20 months.
SteamVR’s support, which started the beta phase in mid-November, provides a remedy. With this interface, WMR users have access to all VR content in the Steam library. This works quite well – apart from the occasional interruptions when tracking the controllers or unpredictable jitters. Details can be found in the SteamVR with Windows Mixed Reality test report.
Middle class VR in 60 Hz mode: useful feature or advertising maneuver?
A special feature of Windows Mixed Reality according to Microsoft: The WMR glasses run on weak PCs with 60 instead of the recommended 90 images per second. The recording of head and body movements should nevertheless remain smooth.
But the 60 Hz mode doesn’t really make sense, because it implies that there is a market for VR users with slow PCs. But Virtual Reality is primarily used by players, designers or developers who want to use graphically complex programs. For this they need a powerful system with a fast graphics card anyway, because only with this can most VR apps be used sensibly.
- The “Ultra Mode” marketed as a high-end variant can therefore confidently be regarded as a “normal mode” – a slightly misleading advertising manoeuvre. If you just want to watch 360-videos, you are usually cheaper and more mobile with good smartphone glasses.
- Following a table to the hardware requirements. Who wants to use Windows Mixed Reality with 90 pictures per second, needs a PC of the Ultra category. More detailed information on the specifications can be found here.
- Windows Mixed Reality is an interesting approach: Unlike HTC or Oculus, Microsoft does not try to bind product and platform as closely as possible. Instead, the company wants to conquer the VR ecosystem as a free rider with maximum diversity and ease of use for beginners.
The start is mixed, since the devices offer no significant added value compared to the PC glasses HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which have been available on the market for 20 months (!) and even represent a step backwards in important areas – in the field of vision, controller tracking or the range of content. What remains is a simpler structure and a slightly higher resolution – at the same price.
If Windows Mixed Reality is successful, a new market situation arises. But it is also clear that Microsoft has only just begun to establish Windows Mixed Reality as a platform. The market launch is intended more as an impulse and start-up aid for the manufacturing industry. If it is let off the leash and creates its own innovations similar to those in the monitor segment – Samsung is already hinting at this with the Odyssey glasses – Microsoft’s platform could create a new market situation due to shorter innovation cycles. The VR glasses would then – similar to a conventional screen – become a common commodity and could no longer be marketed as easily as before as a premium product with a high price and platform claim.
Two steps forward, one back
If you buy a VR headset for Windows Mixed Reality, you can start right away without tedious wiring. Image quality and wearing comfort are convincing, the controller tracking could be cleaner and the range of software could be larger. But it was rather the small details that annoyed us in the test.
Those who wanted to experience Virtual Reality with Roomscale – i.e. walking around instead of just sitting – on a PC first had to set up cameras (Oculus Rift) or base stations (HTC Vive). Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality changes that: connect the headset with a cable, set it up briefly and off you go. We tested Windows Mixed Reality with Acer’s AH101 headset for several days. We liked Microsoft’s approach because of its easier handling and the better display, but at the same time the system’s peculiarities interfered – it is unclear whether they will be solved in the future.
Media player poster frame
Microsoft (like others) speaks of Mixed Reality because it covers a broad spectrum: It ranges from augmented reality with the Hololens to virtual reality with head-mounted displays. However, this is not very obvious for end customers, especially since the VR headsets for Windows Mixed Reality do not have a pass-through function for the camera image, as is the case with Vive. Microsoft didn’t try to support the Golem.de editors in testing Windows Mixed Reality – neither with samples nor with software, which is why we waited until after October 17, 2017 due to the case Creators update.
The case Creators Update for Windows 10 is absolutely necessary, so that the VR headsets can be recognized and suitable software can be installed from the store. The setup of the Acer device is supposed to be simple: The permanently connected 4 m cable is connected to an HDMI and a USB 3.0 port via a Y-connector and after downloading almost 2 GB the Mixed Reality portal starts automatically. The high-end notebook we use, an Asus ROG Zephyrus, also meets the system requirements. Our even faster desktop system, on the other hand, doesn’t, although it runs Rift and Vive.
Fast setup – mostly
The first step is to install the controllers: They each require two AAA batteries, which are included in the packaging. The controllers are switched on using the Windows button, and the pairing button is located under the battery door. Unlike the Rift or Vive, the controllers do not communicate with the headset, but directly with the computer used.
When it comes to furnishing, we choose whether we just want to sit – for example for racing games – or whether we want Roomscale on several square meters. If the latter is the case, we have to walk along the surface to be played with the VR headset in our hands. Inside-out tracking is performed by two fisheye cameras, which are always directed at the notebook to set the virtual limit. Microsoft recommends 2 x 1.5 m – but we have limited the cable in a large room and not the possible playing surface.
As with other VR headsets, it is faded in like a digital cage in virtual reality as we approach the boundary. With Windows Mixed Reality we can only switch the limits on or off, there are no adjustment options. In the test, the playing surface was sporadically not recognized after a restart of the Mixed Reality portal or the system (at the same place), which has never happened to us before with a rift or vive. In this case, the cage has to be set up again.
Cortana should be better silent
In the end, we end up in virtual reality anyway and get a brief introduction from Microsoft’s language assistant Cortana. This is helpful, but at least in German it sounds terribly bumpy – listening is no fun. If you like, you can also connect in-ears with a microphone to the 3.5 mm socket of the headset and use voice control. The Cliff House serves as the main menu, which directly evokes memories of the Tuscany demo by Oculus. We can decorate the house at will, place apps on walls or watch films in 3D cinema or on Youtube.
The tracking is idiosyncratic
The recording of our position in the room worked perfectly at all times, the only drop-out was due to a colleague scurrying through the playing field. The fisheye cameras on the outer edges of the VR headset point slightly downwards – that’s where the controllers are held most of the time. As long as they are in the field of view of the cameras, we could not detect any delays in inside-out tracking.
It becomes problematic when we extend our arms sideways and then move upwards like a puppet. The shadows don’t follow this path, only when we lower our hands from above and the cameras see the controllers again do they jump back to the correct position. If instead we hold our hands in front of us, turn our heads away and back again, inside-out tracking can handle it. When equipping the Cliff House, these limitations hardly ever interfere, but they do in games.
For example, one of the titles available is the well-known Space Pirate Trainer: “When drones buzz over us there, we have to partially hold our hands up to shoot them down – but in most cases the weapons are in view and the tracking works. More problematic is the shield we equip by performing a movement similar to pulling an arrow out of the quiver on the back. It happened to us twice, suddenly standing there unprotected.
Ergonomics is fine
Away from the position of the controllers, their virtual images can tremble slightly to strongly depending on the app. This is hardly noticeable in Cliff House, Halo Recruit, Space Pirate Trainer and Superhot VR. We found it annoying in Arizona Sunshine, where both hands shake. Aiming over rear sight and front sight is so difficult, the trembling is irritating. Since it depends on the app, the shaking doesn’t seem to be a general problem, by the way, there’s a similar problem with Sony’s Playstation VR controllers.
The controllers with an LED ring look like a mixture of Rift and Vive: On the handle there is a Windows and a middle finger button, on the front one for the index and the middle finger, the thumb operates a thumbstick and a trackpad. Gestures like Oculus Touch don’t capture the WMR controllers. They are more ergonomic than those of the Vive, but less pleasant to use than those of the Rift. Especially the inner corner and the edge are a little bit oppressive in the long run. By the way, we can see the battery life of the controllers in virtual reality.
The VR headset is very convenient for this, and it also has other advantages
The Acer model is almost identical to the WMR models in terms of its construction: Like the Playstation VR, the headset is set upside down with a ring handle and forehead padding. The headset is then lashed down by a rotary switch and sits comfortably even after one to two hours. In terms of wearing comfort, we put the headset (450 grams) in front of the HTC Vive (563 grams) and the Oculus Rift (495 grams), although the Vive and Deluxe Audio Strap are also very comfortable. But it costs a high 120 Euro.
Practical: The actual display unit can be folded up by 90 degrees. However, the locking mechanism seems a bit weak to us – who knows how long it will last. Due to the temple system, the headset presses little to not at all on the face, which is an advantage for spectacle wearers. The padding on the eyes and nose hardly lets any light through despite the rather open design, but this is not relevant away from very bright rooms.
Inside the headset two things stand out immediately: the resolution and the horizontal field of view. Acer uses two LCD panels with pulsating backlighting so that the image is only displayed for a few milliseconds (low persistence). Compared to the OLED panels from Rift and Vive, this works excellently, we couldn’t see any halos or almost no streaks. However, black was less intense than the competition, which is noticeable in dark scenes. The Fresnel lenses rarely have a negative effect, the interpupilary interpupillary distance (IDP) is adjustable from 59 to 67 mm in the Windows 10 settings.
- The manufacturer specifies the field of view as 95 degrees, which is a bit less for Rift and Vive.
- We verified this by placing some objects in Cliff House to see if they are covered by the Field of View.
- The difference with the competition is so obvious, but the narrower field of view isn’t just a drawback as it increases pixel density per degree – the annoying fly screen gets smaller but remains visible.
In addition, Acer uses two 2.98-inch panels with 1,440 x 1,440 pixels per eye at 90 Hz. This is more than the 1,080 x 1,200 pixels from Rift and Vive, especially as the LDCs are equipped with an RGB matrix instead of a Pentile matrix. The higher resolution thus has additional subpixels, which makes writing easier to read and details finer. However, the area in which the sharpness comes to the fore is small. In addition, the graphics card must also calculate the additional pixels, so with the same game and the same settings, the requirements increase significantly.
We can’t measure it again, as suitable tools like Nvidia’s FCAT VR refuse to cooperate. Anyway, the app and game selection in the Microsoft store is currently manageable to say the least.
VR Porn Setup Guide
This is how the Mixed Reality setup works.
- Install the latest Windows 10 Creators update
- Connect Windows Mixed Reality glasses to PC via USB and HDMI
- have a Bluetooth dongle ready if necessary
- Open the battery cover of the Windows Controller.
- Switch on the controller by pressing the Windows button (hold for two seconds).
- Press and hold the Bluetooth pairing button under the battery cover until the LEDs flash.
- Pairing successful if the LEDs are permanently lit.