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Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset review: Mixed emotions

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The Good Simple setup, no extra sensors required, comfortable to wear, and works on a very wide range of computer hardware.

The Bad Very limited software, some motion controller tracking issues, and the more-advanced Oculus Rift now costs the same.

The Bottom Line Acer's lower-cost PC hardware gives you access to a few cool VR experiences, but Microsoft's mixed-reality world feels too empty at this early stage.

Editors' note: Acer's Mixed Reality headset relies on Microsoft's Mixed Reality ecosystem, which launched October 17 as part of the Fall Creator's Update for Windows 10. That ecosystem is too new and unpopulated to fully judge, so this preliminary review will be updated with a final rating at a future date. 

Throughout this year, I've had several opportunities to try out early versions of Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality platform. The headsets, from Dell, Acer, HP and others were all largely similar, built around a Microsoft-provided list of specs. Those experiences didn't leave a particularly positive impression on me. The software was lacking, the interaction limited, and the actual tracking of the headset, and therefore the view from inside it, could be stuttery and jumpy.

Now that the final retail versions of several of these Windows Mixed Reality headsets are shipping (everyone just calls it WMR for short), I'm pleasantly surprised to say that it's far better than it was just a few months ago. Performance has greatly improved since those earlier demo sessions, and setting up the hardware -- long a pain point for VR headsets -- is quick and easy. But for now, the overall Windows Mixed Reality experience still leaves me with mixed emotions

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

The first unit across the line is Acer's Windows Mixed Reality headset, which runs $399 for a headset and a pair of handheld controllers. It's £399 in the UK and not for sale in Australia yet (but the Microsoft Store in Australia is selling the similar Dell and HP models for AU$799). That's about the same as the other WMR headsets, give or take $50. You can also save $100 by buying just the headset without the controllers, but that seems pointless.

Besides being one of the least expensive, the Acer headset appeals to me because it allows you to easily flip the eyepiece up on a hinge, while keeping the device mounted on your head. That makes it much easier to quickly check the room around you, talk to someone, or just make sure you're not about to run into a wall (there's also a user-set boundary that shows up in the headset when you approach the edge of your space). 


The WMR headsets, from Acer and others, work now only because Microsoft has released the Fall Creators Update for Windows 10 ($140 at Amazon). That update adds the actual software and support for the headsets, and in conjunction with that, the first round of Mixed Reality apps have entered the Windows App Store. For now, you have to get your software from there, and the selection is rather thin. There are a bunch of 360-degree video players, a handful of games already available for the HTC Vive ($950 at Amazon) or Oculus Rift ($1,295 at Amazon) (including Superhot VR, Arizona Sunshine and Space Pirate Trainer), but not much else. 

A Halo-themed free app, called Halo Recruit, has gotten some buzz but only because almost no one has actually played it. You get to see a few decent-looking but non-interactive 3D models of Halo characters, then you shoot at 2D targets on a computer screen within the game itself. And that's the entire thing. It's hard to feel ripped off by a free app, but Halo Recruit somehow manages that feat.

All mixed up

So, if we're plugging in a headset and connecting handheld controllers, then playing Superhot and Space Pirate Trainer, why is everyone calling this a mixed-reality headset instead of a virtual-reality one?

It's more of a marketing distinction than a technological one. These are VR headsets in all but name, putting dual screens in front of your eyes. This isn't like Google Glass or Microsoft's Hololens, which blends digital images with the real world right in front of you.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset
Sarah Tew/CNET

However, there is an opportunity to bring the real world into these headsets. All the WMR systems, including the Acer WMR, have dual cameras on the outside. These are used for the system's inside-out positioning, which keeps track of where you are in the room, and replaces the need for external sensors, like the ones needed for the Rift and Vive. But, they can also capture a view of the outside world and transmit it to you inside the headset, so this is technically capable of augmented reality. Since it does both virtual and augmented, we call this a "mixed reality" device. (The HTC Vive also has an external camera.)

Virtually the same

The biggest physical difference between the Vive and Rift and the Acer headset is the Acer's lack of outside sensors. That makes for simpler setup and makes the entire rig more portable. All you need is a laptop, the headset and the controllers -- no need to drag extra sensors around.

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