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Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality VR games could face growing pains

Commentary: Microsoft's wireless controllers and Windows VR games show early progress, but the road ahead is tough against better VR software and hardware.

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Lots of headsets, but will Microsoft's VR platform be a success?

Microsoft

VR is all about fine details working together seamlessly. Even a tiny amount of lag ruins a game and a glitchy controller can induce nausea. It's a holistic thing. So, while I was glad to finally try some games on Microsoft's lower-cost, easier-to-setup flavor of Windows VR, I'm a little concerned about how good it will feel when it finally launches later this year.

Windows Mixed Reality uses in-headset cameras instead of room sensors to track movement, which means it's easier to use anywhere, but could potentially result in more tracking difficulties. At least, that was the case when I first tried a Windows "mixed reality" headset earlier this year.

I got a chance to do a deeper dive last week, along with a handful of the platform's first apps and games which will be available on the Windows Store when the hardware and Windows 10 Fall Creators Update software launches. "Holiday," says Microsoft's Greg Sullivan after I asked him again about the specific time frame, acknowledging that there'll be some catch-up. Microsoft's strategy for its HoloLens-derived VR platform is to keep growing and to eventually fold in the Xbox One X. (But not this year: That'll be further down the road, it seems.)

I also got to try Microsoft's wireless controllers, an answer to what the Vive and Oculus Touch already offer for Vive and Oculus Rift's VR platforms. The headset I used was the Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset Developer Edition, the same one I used back in spring (this is basically the same headset as the one Acer will sell for $299 -- roughly £231 or AU$400). Several hardware manufacturers will be making Microsoft-ready headsets using similar Hololens-derived tracking technology, including Lenovo, Acer, Dell and HP. They all have flip-up visors.

This is an early look at the software and hardware that will be arriving by the end of the year. But, while things looked better than the last time I tried Windows Mixed Reality, it still feels like it has a long way to go.

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Windows Mixed Reality controllers are studded with LED lights, and feel like a mix of Oculus Touch and Vive controllers.

Microsoft

Good games, when the tracking hung in

Microsoft has announced that a Halo-based entertainment app is in the works from Halo 5: Guardians developer 343 Industries, and that gaming company Steam will be compatible with Windows Mixed Reality hardware, too (keeping in mind that though Steam supports lots of VR hardware, Vive apps might not work on Windows Mixed Reality headsets).

I played quick sessions of popular games like Superhot VR, Arizona Sunshine, Rec Room and Space Pirate Trainer on a Razer Blade Pro. It's great that these are all coming to Microsoft's platform, and while the field of view on the headset I used seemed smaller than other VR headsets, the experience looked fine from a visual standpoint.

What concerned me more was the tracking. My demo was in a dim room, which Microsoft assured me wasn't necessarily to use Windows Mixed Reality. I'm not entirely convinced. The tracking cameras are sensitive to brighter light, and direct light could throw them off. As I ducked and moved around in Superhot, I sometimes found hiccups. Space Pirate Trainer worked well, though. Arizona Sunshine was a bigger test for the tracking range of the controllers, which were a mixed bag.

Controllers feel great: Will they work great?

Microsoft's pair of wireless controllers feel like a hybrid of the Oculus Touch and the HTC Vive controllers, and have a nice layout of buttons and triggers, combining a touchpad and physical button controls in one. Offering both a stick and touchpad gives them more flexibility, at times, than either the Vive or Touch setups.

Microsoft promises that the controllers can track even when out of sight of the headset's cameras, using the controller's motion tracking sensors and "inverse kinematics" to pinpoint where the controllers should be. I was able to reach down and out of my headset's range, or reach behind my back. It worked. But sometimes I felt the controllers shift a bit. One controller lost charge during my demo, too.

On integrated graphics, it works... but not for everything

A second demo on a HP Spectre x360 13-inch laptop with Intel integrated graphics showed that the basic Windows Mixed Reality software can work: I wandered the "Cliff House" area that acts as a home base to play Windows apps and videos, and tried a Lego Batman 360-degree video. I also played some Minecraft in VR, and it seemed fine. But I also play Minecraft in VR on Samsung's phones -- it's not a graphically intense game.

Microsoft's HoloTour app also worked, blending 360-degree video and some 3D graphics. I looked around a plaza in Rome and clicked on a few informational zones. It's pretty cool that this can work on a basic laptop, though. With an easier plug-in one-cable setup and no extra sensors, it feels almost like the PC equivalent of a mobile VR headset. That could be a big plus for educators looking for simple setups in classrooms.

No longer quite the bargain

The other problem Microsoft's hardware platform faces is that the discount between its low-cost offerings ($399 for the Acer headset and wireless controllers) and Oculus Rift and HTC Vive isn't so great anymore. Oculus Rift and Vive VR bundles both got price drops recently. For a little more, I'd lean toward Oculus or Vive's more stable and established VR platforms for my virtual reality thrills.

But there's another part of the equation that looms: How much can VR be an integrated tool? Microsoft's aiming to integrate virtual reality and mixed reality into the heart of Windows 10 -- it wants to have apps launch right into it. For those using VR for research, work or education, Windows Mixed Reality might offer an appealingly simple and affordable solution, if Microsoft's integrated-VR dream comes to pass. Will it be the best? After my early demos, the answer is no. But Microsoft seems willing to play the long game.