GDC 2017: Hands-On With Microsoft’s First Windows VR Headset

by Ian Hamilton • March 1st, 2017

I tried a Microsoft prototype VR headset at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and got the first public look at the company’s vision for mixed reality beyond Hololens.

I’ll get straight to the point. Inside the headset, I saw considerable motion blur while moving my head. I was among a handful of journalists invited to see the internal Microsoft prototype, though I was told photos or videos for my demo would not be allowed. Developer kits are slated to ship in the coming weeks. While those units are expected to be an improvement, the prototype internal hardware I tried was running at 60 frames per second. To my eyes, this blurring effect was more than I’m accustomed to seeing in even mobile headsets like Gear VR or Daydream. When dev kits ship, I’m told those units can run at 90 frames per second.

This is Acer's kit, the first Holographic VR headset to roll out to developers.

This is Acer’s kit, the first Microsoft-powered VR headset to roll out to developers.

The unit also had a very short cord to the PC, so I was severely limited in how much I could test the robustness of Microsoft’s inside out tracking. I could manage jumping in place, turning and lots of leaning. As far as tracking is concerned, it worked without hitches with the exception of one or two very brief moments where some stairs seemed to pop out of place a few inches then quickly return. It was brief, and unclear if related to tracking specifically. I didn’t note any discomfort when it happened.

I used an Xbox controller to select apps and teleport from place to place inside a virtual house. When I encountered a bug in the system and couldn’t jump to a particular world, they had to do one full restart of the system while I was inside the headset. It’s to be expected with in-development software and hardware, but am I the first person outside Microsoft or its partners to see the Windows startup logo appear in VR?

I also found features in Microsoft’s gear I instantly wished were included in my Rift and Vive back at home. First, the flip up screen feature made me giggle with joy.

Doc Brown Glasses

One second I’m playing Forza on a big screen in VR streaming from an Xbox. Flip. Now I’m back in the real world chatting with the people there. Flip. Now I’m driving again. Flip. Back in the real world. It was effortless and nearly instant to switch between realities by simply flipping the screen up away from my face. This was far more convenient than removing the entire headset or even using the passthrough camera on Vive.

“We’re the most affordable, we’re the easiest to setup, and we’re the most comfortable,” said Alex Kipman, Microsoft Technical Fellow, in an interview with UploadVR.

The added convenience of the flip out screen is amplified by the tracking technology Microsoft pioneered on HoloLens. This “inside-out” tracking tech was developed over a number of years by Microsoft, and it is quite an achievement. Rather than cameras searching for lights or base stations beaming out lasers, the inside-out approach relies on cameras and sensors embedded in the headset itself to figure out your head’s precise location within a given space. In theory, with a Microsoft-powered VR headset, you can move your VR experiences from one room to another as easily as you could a laptop. It’s an important feature that makes getting in and out of VR a lot easier, and one Facebook and Google would love to match.

microsoft-headsets

My time inside Windows also highlighted the value of multi-tasking with access to familiar apps. This is something we’ve lost in the Vive and Rift. Any simple task like checking Twitter or the weather requires dropping out of whatever you’re doing, but in the Windows vision of mixed reality these apps sit on tables or hang from walls. Fully immersive software takes over everything, but some legacy apps can be enjoyed simultaneously. The interface also showed how some content, like a highly detailed animated 3D capture of a space suit, can seem to float in this virtual living room alongside other content.

I watched 360 videos with the movies app, checked out a model of the solar system and played Forza streaming from an Xbox. I also checked out Twitter and the weather forecast simultaneously, with both traditional Windows apps sitting on my virtual walls. I immediately wanted to surround myself in dozens of windows. Access to all these apps in VR really highlights just how simplistic and limiting Steam and Oculus Home are when it comes to app selection. Within a few minutes of playing around in there, I really wanted something similar in the Rift or Vive.

We still have much to see from Microsoft. Kipman said that the company’s GDC showcase is “all about the headset”, adding that Windows is open to a variety of inputs, from gamepad, to keyboards, to 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF) controls. He suggested upcoming conferences, including Microsoft’s Build, would show next steps in mixed reality for the tech giant.

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  • Do we have any timeframe for a consumer release? Can’t recall if this has been announced yet.

  • Ryan

    In the Vive, you can just press the Steam button and look at you desktop to check Twitter etc. Not to hard.

    • elev8d

      Yeah, I think the point is more that the SteamVR home environment is pretty simplistic right now and doesn’t have the ability for dropping in widgets or open windows into it, which would be a pretty awesome feature that I hadn’t even considered before now.

      • Ryan

        Yes, even with virtual desktop you are limited to virtual monitors, rather than being able to put windows anywhere. I look forward with that combined with higher res displays allowing a fantastic amount of visual data to be presented in VR.

    • 12Danny123

      But it’s not productive. You can’t place applications around the space. That’s the benefit of Windows Holographic actually being an OS Shell than an application. So can sooooo much more than what Steam VR and Oculus can do.

      • Jim Cherry

        But gamers don’t want to be productive 😉 In all seriousness any one that thinks this is targeted at steam users is missing the point.

        • 12Danny123

          Windows MR is a universal audience, meaning it doesn’t have a specific target at all. Like Windows 10, it’s catered to the mainstream audience. Gaming is under that audience as is casual users.

          • Jim Cherry

            Microsoft as a company has been way more focused on business/enterprise since nadella took over as a result how they approach the consumer market has been pretty much an argument for productivity. Even with the creative update thats coming its still about prosumers being productive. Please tell me you guys dont actually think that steam and the gaming community is all aboard that. I mean you guys keep saying the hololens is not good enough for games and they’ve answered with products that seemingly are still not good enough for games.

        • gwydionjhr

          So is not grasping the audience size for a $300 headset with movement that only requires a fairly pedestrian PC to run it vs. a $2500 set up. Not to mention the low barrier to entry that comes with “it runs the same apps you use on Windows 10”

        • Diego Cesaretti

          Gaming its not going to Drive vr forever…

  • Full Name

    Cool feature with individual windows floating around, but am I understanding it has no motion controllers? That is a complete no-go for me…

    • NooYawker

      It’s still early let’s hope they add it when it gets released.

    • Smokey_the_Bear

      If they create some good looking/functioning motion controllers, I will 100% chance buy this. lol
      Perhaps by the time it is released (6-8 months) they will also cut the cord, or make wireless a little pricier option…one that MANY would be willing to upgrade too (including me).

      • ImperialDynamics

        definitely that’s where it’s heading. Remember this wasn’t even a first-gen device but only a dev kit. Wireless option FTW

        • Adam Finch

          I think there will definitely be options for controls, but that most of these headsets will use hand gestures for controls by default, esp since this article suggests they share what is largely the same tracking tech as Hololens. In an October event last year Microsoft also showed off a VR headset that used gestures.

    • ImperialDynamics

      i’d say adding motion controller support is the easy part. They have mastered (and they are the only ones to my knowledge) the hard part, inside-out tracking

      • Full Name

        No, we have not seen any successful demo of motion controller support. Sure, if they add the same inside out tracking in each controller it will work pretty well, but using the HMD to track the controllers in a meaningful way will be very difficult.

        • Diego Cesaretti

          People keep underestimating Microsoft rd departament… They’ve made what no one else could this far… And gave it away to oems, im Shure motion controllers are allready in the making…

          • Full Name

            For good reason. I have now tested an early unit and tracking was *ok. I would say on par with Playstation HMD. It is not as good as Vive (or Rift for that matter). The accuracy will likely depend on the environment quite a bit.

            Also, Microsoft has historically not been that impressive, just think of Kinect. It is really not that good..

          • Yeah, I’ve gotta agree on that… the quality of Kinect was really poor in many ways. I like what people have done with it as far as hacking it into other projects, but on its own –as it was originally intended to be used by MS, it’s not really a great device at all.

            On the other hand, with the early units showing tracking capability on first-gen hardware that are comparable to PSVR really isn’t that bad –all things considered, particularly the initial frame-rate/refresh-rate specifications showing the HMD running at 60Hz-progressive/60FPS. That tells me that if they ramp up their onboard spacial awareness processing speed, and whatever other chipsets needed to handle tracking in real-time, then the end-resulting commercial products will likely be at least as good as anything currently out. That’s not a bad thing.

            From what I’m understanding too, it’s looking like MSVR/OSVR compatible HMDs coming up over the next 2 years are going to be the first wave of hardware that brings decent performance at a lower price than the VR-technology-launch generation, and that’s a step in the right direction toward getting VR proliferating everywhere.

            While I understand a lot of people are skeptical, I think this is one of the greatest times to be involved with hardware/software development, because we finally have the beginnings of technology that a huge percentage of us have been dreaming about for decades. While the initial offerings might not be up to the expectations of some, I’m personally happy to see progress occurring at all. I suppose its all comes down to how you look at it… and that has nothing to do with VR hardware, but rather one’s own mind –example: Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person? (which in essence is an indicator of whether someone is optimistic in their outlook or pessimistic. I work in IT (systems engineering), and that doesn’t cut off when I go home; Technology is practically the air I breathe; So, that sort of makes me an optimist when it comes to developments –up until I see evidence that optimism is misplaced; But even when something is somewhat of a goofy-prototype, if the idea behind it is good, I’m more than happy to champion it’s development into something fantastic.

            I suppose with MSVR though… we probably should take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Closer to launch, I imagine we’ll see higher quality specs from various 3rd party manufacturers, since this *is* basically the beginning of Open VR standards. Around that time, we should see some really good gear start to materialize, and the dev kits that we’re seeing now will be relegated to same class as the old Oculus DK1, or the much more ancient VFX3D (circa 1994; looking back at this one, it’s obvious how far along it’s all come).

    • I’m sure by the time this launches, either MS themselves or a 3rd party will have something immediately available, but… since this is made specifically for Windows, I feel pretty confident that there’ll be plenty of support for unrelated 3rd party controls, such as some of the many upcoming haptic feedback glove interfaces that allow you to use your hands naturally in VR.

      This is why standards are important, and PCs are a great place to work those standards out. Over the next year or two, I expect to see VR standards start to solidify a lot like graphics card standards did around 2 decades ago. Controller interfaces will follow suit.

  • Mateusz Kierepka

    How we can order Holographic Dev.Kit?

    • Jim Cherry

      Probably have to wait till build2017

  • Mike

    Will Win Holographic support the Rift or other current VR headsets?

    • Jim Cherry

      Ms rebranded win holographic today it’s now called win me and htc was announced as a partner last year but we don’t know if they’ll leverage current vive or make a cheaper headset for this.

  • iUserProfile

    One thing I know for sure: This is one ugly motherfucker! Looks as if it was inspired by Nintendo: Virtual Boy

    • Jim Cherry

      That’s acer for you

  • Hans Olo

    Technology seems promising……seems it will be a hit!

  • Well this doesn’t sound good.

    • ImperialDynamics

      the short cord?! Seriously?!

  • They’re still behind the others, but the fact that they merge AR and VR with a single operating system supporting everything out of the box (this is their vision) makes Microsoft a very interesting competitor. They can make with VR headsets the same they made with Computer screens with Windows lots of years ago.

    • ImperialDynamics

      “behind”?! How are they behind others?!!!! Who are those others?! Magic leap and their fake videos?!

    • Diego Cesaretti

      Man… Except psvr all hmds run on Windows… How are they behind…. WH its going to be compatible with the Rift and vive im shure… They make money on the software…

    • I think I get your meaning, in that they’re behind the others in terms of delivering a product to market, and their current hardware prototypes are about where the Rift dev kits were in their first year. On both of those points, I would agree.

      I also agree that this *will* make their platform quite interesting, because of the level at which Microsoft will be able to integrate VR into the OS itself at a deep level over time.

      I think a lot of people are looking at this all from the perspective of this being a final product, and it’s nowhere near that yet, but it *is* off to an interesting start, at least for those of us that would do more than just use VR for gaming. What’s going to be curious to me is how all of this evolves, say between 2017 and 2027. I’m betting that the next 10 years are going to see VR, MR, and AR moving into the mainstream, and… possibly holographics as well –there’ve been some big leaps in those areas of development in recent years, and with a bit of refinement and retooling of display-manufacturing-plants, we could see that technology being literally everywhere by 2024-2026 –keep in mind that we’re not that far away from that now.

  • ImperialDynamics

    two questions please:
    1. it is no clear to me at all: Is this mixed-reality only or can it also do VR?
    2. kinda relating to the first question, how large is the FoV?

  • kontis

    60 FPS and LCD. Did they just clone a DK1? What years is it? 2013? Ironically, price is also the same.

  • YechiamTK

    What I don’t understand is why everyone searching so badly for that inside out solution when there’s one from Google for a couple of years now already (the Tango project). Can’t they just use that? Why haven’t I heard a word about it.. Such a waste of awesome tech

  • Diego Cesaretti

    At a $159 the touch controlers + extra sensor could end up being a good choice of controllers for this headsets…

  • Nate

    I’m looking forward to watching Windows system updates in VR.

  • wolverine58

    Pretty much underwhelming. They (Microsoft) are constantly advertising products that aren’t available. Coordination with release dates is confusing; I am not even sure if any applications will be released to utilize VR headsets on Windows and the market for these is likely going to be limited to gamers for the most part. It will take time for apps to be released and for a market to develop. Microsoft is once again having to play catch up to VR already offered on Android devices which are portable and further along the development cycle.