Just before Christmas, I invested rather a lot of money in the Microsoft Surface Book 2. The sweetener that pushed me over the edge: Microsoft Store was bundling a Windows Mixed Reality headset, and this was something I’d been curious to try properly. Not demo. To use in my own home over a few weeks. I felt sure, after all that time, I could answer the question “What is Windows Mixed Reality?” with confidence.
The short answer, for now at least, is virtual reality on Windows. The bigger question is whether or not you should invest more than £300 in a headset. But first, let’s go through the Windows Mixed Reality step by step.
Give me the basics: what is Windows Mixed Reality?
At the moment, it’s virtual reality by a different name. Windows Virtual Reality, but I guess that doesn’t sound as good as Windows Mixed Reality. Plonk on your headset and you’ll be transported to Microsoft’s Cliff House, a weird open house perched on a cliff edge that you can explore and decorate as you see fit. You can even add a holographic mime artist.
Despite all the graphical excitement, it’s essentially the Windows Start Menu and Desktop translated into 3D. You can place visual shortcuts for the Windows Store, for example, or head down the stairs to watch a virtual movie on your virtual sofa whilst eating virtual popcorn.
What can I do in Windows Mixed Reality?
Yes, yes indeed. That is the question. You can play games. You can even play Steam VR games, although my experience suggests you’ll need to spin round three times and evoke the spirit of the West Witch to set it up. (Shameful admission: I gave up after 20 minutes of head-bashing, but my 13-year-old son got it working. He’ll be showing me how to set the timer on the VCR later.)
The promise is that you can explore other parts of the world – or under the ocean, the moon, a different galaxy – so you need never leave the immediate environs of your desk, but at the moment there isn’t much to compel you.
That isn’t to say it will never come. VR in any form still needs to hit its tipping point, but there are promising signs: for example, the BBC just partnered with Google to create a Daydream version of Blue Planet, which I’m sure could be compelling.
How fast a computer do I need to run Windows Mixed Reality?
Not that fast. You’ll need a desktop PC or laptop with a discrete graphics chip inside – that is, one made by AMD or Nvidia rather than the built-in graphics chip that ships with many Intel processors – but my Surface Book 2 can run WMR quite happily using its lowly GeForce MX 150 processor.
Things change if you want to play Steam VR games. Although some run okay on such a humble graphics chip, you’ll need a PC or laptop that gets a “Ready” mark in the SteamVR Performance Test if you want a smooth experience – click here to run the Steam VR performance test on your PC.
How realistic is it?
It isn’t. You’re always aware that you’re wearing a headset for a start, and the fact that the current generation have a relatively limited 1,440 x 1,440 resolution per eye means that you never get the impression of reality.
Will I feel nauseous?
The widespread nausea problems associated with early versions of Oculus Rift have drifted away. That’s in part because the refresh rates are 90Hz now when they used to be 60Hz, which evidently is better for the brain’s I-want-to-be-sick cortex.
How comfortable are the headsets?
They’re fine. I’m yet to put the headsets from Acer, HP and Lenovo through long-term tests (they’re sitting on my chair as I type this), but I’ve worn the Dell Visor for several hours now.
All of the headsets are too heavy and cumbersome to wear for extended periods – over half an hour, say – at a time, but they’re fine for strapping on for short blasts. And that’s true for my ten-year-old as well as for adults.
Are there any good games for Windows Mixed Reality?
I’m yet to find a game that’s blown my mind. And that’s one of the real problems for Windows Mixed Reality, and VR as a whole, because without staggeringly good content that brings you back for more, you’ll never re-attach a headset to your face.
But there are some half-decent games. I’ll explore those properly in a future article, but head over to TechRadar’s list of 25 games for a taster.
Will I need a huge, empty room stuffed full of sensors?
No. More space is good, but during setup you’ll be asked to mark out the usable area by walking while holding the headset. This maps out a rough rectangular area that WMR knows you need to stay within; it will warn you when you get close to the edge. It’s a neater approach than the HTC Vive with its wall-mounted sensors.
You can also use WMR sitting down, but that isn’t as much fun and some of the games assume you have an area to walk around in.
Should I buy a Windows Mixed Reality headset?
I’d love to say yes, I really would. But as things stand, WMR feels like a curiosity rather than a must-have. Buy one if you like to stay at the cutting-edge of tech, but if you’re looking for something that you’ll spend hours and hours playing with, you’re better off with an Xbox. Or a cat.