Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality headsets recently started shipping to developers, but they won’t really feel complete until people can get their hands on the accompanying motion controllers, which go on sale this holiday. Microsoft first revealed these controllers in May, and we finally got to check them out a little bit last week, in advance of a public appearance at the IFA electronics show. They’re not the most elegant hardware, but they’re an impressive technical achievement: a pair of full-featured motion controllers that work without any fixed external trackers, just cameras on the VR headset itself.
Like the headsets, Windows Mixed Reality controllers will be released by Microsoft partners, including HP, Lenovo, Dell, and Acer; bundles of the two will start at $399. (While “mixed reality” refers to a spectrum of immersive technology, Microsoft’s Mixed Reality headsets are basically just VR headsets.) Microsoft developers are supposed to always plug their headsets into comparatively high-end PCs with dedicated graphics cards, but for consumers, there are two options. The “Windows Mixed Reality Ultra” baseline has a graphics card, and experiences will run at 90 frames per second, the optimal standard for VR. “Windows Mixed Reality” PCs have integrated graphics, and run at 60 frames per second, a minimum standard.
Overall, Microsoft says that headsets will work with “new and existing PC models” that start at $499. That’s less than the vast majority of Oculus Rift or HTC Vive-ready PCs, but it’s actually not that much cheaper than the low end of that spectrum. Other VR headsets have also gotten cheaper since Microsoft announced Windows Mixed Reality; an Oculus motion controller bundle dropped to $499, and the HTC Vive is now $599.
Windows Mixed Reality’s biggest advantage right now is probably convenience. You can plug in a headset and have internal cameras track its motion without additional hardware, making it much more flexible and portable, even if it’s still wired to a PC. Lots of companies are doing this kind of inside-out tracking, but based on my brief experience, few of them are doing it as well as Microsoft. The headset motion is precise and fluid, without the “swimminess” that I’ve experienced elsewhere.
Windows Mixed Reality is also the first major platform to pair these inside-out headsets with motion controllers, which use an LED tracking system similar to that of Oculus Touch. And these controllers work very well, at least in the limited environment of a Microsoft demo. I checked out fragments of around half a dozen apps and games, including Microsoft’s home environment, a clean white building overlooking a garden with mountain ranges in the distance.
Some of these experiences were simple, like a VR version of the HoloLens tourism app HoloTour — in those cases, I was primarily just using buttons and a thumbstick. But others were full-fledged VR games, including the shooters Space Pirate Trainer, Superhot VR, and Arizona Sunshine. These experiences all require consistent accuracy, and Microsoft’s controllers delivered it in almost every case. The controllers would sometimes snap out of place if I held my arms very wide, but they tracked almost every motion I was likely to take in a game. If they work that well in a home environment, I could easily imagine using them instead of externally tracked controllers.
Microsoft is becoming more obviously committed to consumer experiences. It announced support for the Steam gaming platform today, as well as a list of individual gaming and entertainment companies it was partnering with. It also revealed that its studio 343 Industries is working to bring “future Halo experiences” to mixed reality.
The controllers don’t feel nearly as nice to hold as Oculus Touch, however. They include similar features to Touch: each has a home and menu button, a front trigger, a lower “grip” trigger, and an analog stick. (Microsoft’s design also adds a trackpad right beside the stick.) But the shape felt a little too big for my hand, and the Windows button placement was low enough that I had to hunt for it, although I’m sure I’d get used to that with frequent use. Manufacturing partners could tweak the design, but I’m not confident that will make it much better, since the Acer headset I used was distinctly uncomfortable as well.
I played the three games mentioned above on an “Ultra” PC, and if you’re interested in VR gaming, that’s probably the one to get. We now know that Windows Mixed Reality headsets will work with Steam, which makes them a more viable alternative to the Rift and Vive, but games designed for those platforms will still need real computing power to run. I tried much less intensive apps, like HoloTour, on a machine with integrated graphics. Even at 60 frames per second, these weren’t distractingly low-quality — the home environments, for example, felt very similar on both machines.
Windows Mixed Reality’s VR headsets don’t have the massive price advantage they did a year ago, especially if you consider motion controllers an integral part of the platform. (Which, in my opinion, you should.) Still, Microsoft and its partners are offering some unique and functional hardware. With the IFA showing and this holiday’s consumer release date, we’ll hopefully be seeing more of it soon.
Update 9:30AM ET: Added information about content partnerships, including Halo VR.