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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