ACCESSIBLE VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) has been with us for a few years now, with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive taking care of high-end headsets, and the likes of Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Daydream offering more affordable smartphone-powered VR goggles.
But as the Oculus, SteamVR, and Daydream platforms expanded their portfolio of virtual games, apps and experiences, another player entered the fray in the form of Windows Mixed Reality.
Now part of Windows 10, Redmond’s soiree into the VR world stems from its HoloLens augmented Reality (AR) goggles and attempts to combine VR and AR into ‘mixed reality’ (MR).
And Acer’s Windows Mixed Reality headset was one of the first Windows-centric MR headsets out of the gates.
Looking like goggles that a character from a sci-fi 90s cartoon would wear, the Acer MR headset presents a compact and rather angular headset in glossy-blue and black.
Two sensor arrays sit like eyes on the visor, which make it look a little like a robot’s face but allow the headset to offer 6-degrees-of-freedom positional tracking without external sensor nodes.
Compared to other Windows Mixed Reality headsets from HP, Dell and Lenovo, Acer’s arguably looks the most futuristic and sleek.
The plastic build doesn’t scream quality when compared to the likes of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, though the headset feels nice enough to pop on one’s bonce.
That’s easily done as well, thanks to a single padded headband, reminiscent of the PlayStation VR headset, that holds the headset in place and is adjusted by a screw-like wheel to tighten or loosen the band to fit the wearer’s noggin.
Foam surrounds the eyepiece to make the headset more comfortable when its pressed against the face. The cushioning is decent and resistant to sweat, though it doesn’t feel particularly plush and we found it got a little warm after 30 minutes of wear if we were moving around a lot.
If things get too toasty or claustrophobic, getting a brief respite is easy as a hinge on the headset allows it to be flipped-up like a visor. It’s a neat feature that’s a lot easier than taking the headset on and off, especially if you want to check things back in the real world.
Two cables, one HDMI 2.0 and another USB 3.0, run out of the headset’s right side to be connected to a laptop or desktop. A 3.5mm jack dangles by these cables for wearers to plug in headphones.
On the whole, Acer Mixed Reality headset is roomy and comfortable to wear, it just has a more no-frills feel to it than more expensive and demanding VR hardware.
The headset’s bundled controllers follow Microsoft Mixed Reality hardware reference designs more closely and look like the Oculus Touch controllers.
They come equipped with trigger and grip buttons, a clickable touchpad and joysticks. At the end of each controller is a ring of white LEDs that work in tandem with the headset’s front sensors to track a user’s movements.
While they can withstand a knock or two and are nice and lightweight, the plastic construction doesn’t feel as smooth or premium as, say, a PlayStation 4 controller. And needing two AA batteries to power each controller feels a little retrograde for a device that’s meant to evoke feelings of next-gen tech.
Nevertheless, they aren’t too shabby for navigating the Windows Mixed Reality platform.
Window into mixed reality
Getting started with Windows Mixed Reality is a doddle. Once the headset was plugged in it took a mere 10 minutes or so to set up.
Acer’s Mixed Reality headset can be used sitting down with a mouse or standing up with the controllers. And once you set up a VR ‘boundary’ by tracing a rough square in front of your machine and have paired the Bluetooth controllers with a Windows 10 PC or laptop, you’re good to dive into Windows Mixed Reality.
It greets you with the imaginatively-named “Cliff House” environment which features a minimalist virtual house situated on cliff overlooking the sea.
At first glance, Cliff House looks rather lovely. Acer has equipped the headset with two 2.9in displays running at a combined resolution of 2,880 by 1,440 pixels and offering 110 degrees horizontal field of view.
It has a sharper resolution per eye than the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which both sport resolutions of 1,080 x 1,200 per peeper. But while the image was sharp we found that the LCD panels in the Acer Mixed Reality headset couldn’t match vibrancy or contrast of the OLED displays in the aforementioned headsets.
That might be a slightly unfair comparison as both of those headsets were considerably more expensive at launch than the £400 Acer headset.
Still, Acer’s headset put on an impressive display regardless, particularly as it was refreshing at 90hz which kept motion sickness at bay for us.
It’s worth noting that we had the headset plugged into an Asus ROG Strix GL702VM, equipped with a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and Nvidia’s 6GB Geforce GTX 1060. The gaming laptop can crunch through games at 1080p with settings maxed out and does a fair job with gaming at 1440p resolution, meaning its a gutsy ‘VR-ready’ machine.
Acer’s headset can be used on laptops with integrated graphics, but the refresh rate is set at 60hz which may cause some people to feel a little nauseous.
While the Acer headset doesn’t demand the same level of computing power as higher-end headsets, we still reckon its best used with a gutsy machine for the smoothest virtual experience.
Poking around Redmond’s virtual holiday home
Zipping around the Cliff House is done using either a mouse while sitting or the controllers when standing to select a zone to teleport to. You can then move physically around an area depending on how large your VR boundary is.
Thanks to the use of an integrated gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer, movement is a rather neat mix of physical and virtual actions that bypass space constraints and the potential for feeling nauseous.
The Cliff House acts as both a virtual space and a user interface with access to the Windows Store and a variety of familiar apps.
The Edge browser, Skype and Photos apps are displayed on the walls of the virtual house and can be interacted with or moved around at will to be placed on other surfaces or just left to hang in the air.
Once we got used to wrangling with the controls and accurately using the pointers that protrude out of them – movement tracking didn’t feel quite as accurate as the HTC Vive with its mass of built-in and external sensors, but messing around with apps and virtual windows felt pretty good.
We downloaded the Netflix VR app and placed the window onto the screen of a personal cinema style room in the Cliff House. It’s arguably a novelty, but being able to watch the latest Netflix series on a massive virtual screen rather than a TV in our poky London flat was a nice way to ease into VR.
But things get more compelling when you boot up the albeit limited VR experiences Windows Mixed Reality has to offer. The best example being Superhot VR.
Taking the indie game that has players fighting enemies in a stark world where time only moves forward when the player does and putting it into VR is bloody brilliant.
If ever you want to feel like Neo from The Matrix, then Superhot VR is the game to evoke those feelings.
Being able to physically dodge bullets in slow motion while slinging an ashtray at a glowing assailant, then catching their gun mid-air and riddling their oncoming pals with lead is nothing short of brilliant.
With the Acer headset movement tracking is spot on here, with the rare exception of when we flailed our arms too far to our sides or behind us thereby losing the headset’s sensor detection.
In one firefight situation, we quickly ducked below a set of shelves to avoid bullets, found a book and various other bits and bobs and hurled them at the enemies in a makeshift Jason Bourne-like fashion. Thanks to the solid moment tracking, such a move felt intuitive and helped make the game feel intense and captivating despite the minimal use of colours and graphics.
This felt like VR at its finest. Just don’t do what we did and forget to turn on the VR boundary, as walloping a load-bearing wall at force leads to skinned knuckles.
Unfortunately, other such experiences on the Windows Mixed Reality platform are lacking, and Superhot VR is available for SteamVR, which prevents it from being a game to compel people to adopt Redmond’s take on VR.
And that’s the crux of Windows Mixed Reality overall. There’s simply no enough VR content on it to make it a platform to commit to over those from Oculus or Steam.
Windows Mixed Reality support is offered in SteamVR but it’s currently in its early days and there aren’t many games that are supported for MR headsets.
Also, the MR part is a bit of a misnomer, as unlike Microsoft’s HoloLens, there’s no AR superimposing of digital assets and apps over real-world objects. One could argue that having access to desktop apps in a VR space is a form of mixing apps we use in the real-world with a virtual environment but that’s a bit of a stretch.
With the current software lineup, it’s difficult to recommend Windows Mixed Reality and its compatible headsets over platforms from Oculus and others, though that could change over time if Microsoft gets more developers on-board and shores up compatibility with the likes of SteamVR.
This isn’t Acer’s fault, and it has produced a capable and comfortable VR headset with only a few minor gripes when compared to its high-end rivals.
However, where Acer loses out is on price; £400 is a lot of money for just a VR headset that doesn’t have a massive range of apps to jump into. But Acer’s not alone, with other Windows Mixed Reality headsets priced well above £300.
Such Windows-reliant headsets may be more compelling if the PlayStation VR didn’t offer a headset and games bundle for the same price, and if the Oculus Rift bundle hadn’t dropped in price down to £400.
With such a price drop, an established software library and SteamVR support as well, the Oculus Rift is the headset we’d recommend to anyone keen to get into PC-based VR.
Microsoft needs to bulk out Windows Mixed Reality and actually add in some AR features to make MR more than a swish tech term. If and when that happens we’d be keen to see Acer follow up its headset with a refined successor that has access to enough content to let it stretch its virtual chops. µ
Sharp screen, neat design and easy setup, decent movement tracking, team VR comparability.
Less than premium materials, plasticy build, controllers need four AA batteries.
There’s not enough VR or true mixed reality content to justify the £400 price tag, especially when the Oculus Rift is now the same price and offers more.