Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Valve/HTC’s Vive the two best-known VR headsets for the PC, but there’s a new competitor in town: Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Headsets. The hardware is provided by not one company here but five: Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung have all produced headsets with slightly different designs. Today, we’re reviewing Acer’s £359 edition, simply known as the Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset. Let’s get right into it!
Design & Features
The Acer headset is kind of dorky looking, with a chunky blue plastic faceplate sporting a shiny black visor. Thankfully, you can’t see yourself while you’re wearing it and you’ll be using it tethered to your PC anyway, so this isn’t really an issue.
The visor contains two front-facing cameras, which allow for the augmented reality experiences that are implied by the ‘mixed reality’ label. The headset is lightweight compared to both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, and it feels as well-balanced as either headset too.
The headset is worn using a matte plastic band, with a rubberised material at the front and back to cushion your human head.
The back of the headset has a blue wheel which adjusts the fit rapidly, which makes it easy to switch between different users or tighten things up while you’re inside the virtual world.
There’s also a hinge that allows you to check where you left your coffee cup without getting completely unplugged. There’s no way to adjust the fitting in any other way, which is refreshing simple — however, I sometimes wished there were a few more knobs to twiddle to achieve that (perhaps imagined) perfect fit.
The headset connects to your PC using a single 4 metre (13 feet) cable, which terminates in both HDMI and USB inputs. There’s also a short 3.5mm headset cable that sits alongside the headband, allowing you to plug in your choice of in-ear, on-ear or over-ear headphones. If your audio equipment of choice includes a microphone, you’ll also be able to talk to Cortana this way; otherwise any PC microphone that is in range will do (I used a Blue Yeti as it was set up nearby).
Inside the headset, you’ll find two 1440 x 1440 displays. If your computer can consistently produce 100 frames per second at 1440p in your favourite games, then you should be able to hit the 2880 x 1440 @ 90 frames per second target of the Mixed Reality Headset. (If you’re running on an integrated Intel chipset, the headset will instead operate at a less fluid 60 frames per second).
The 1440 x 1440 resolution of the headset is a little bit higher than either the Oculus Rift or the Vive (1080 x 1200), but lower resolution than the upcoming Vive Pro (1440 x 1600). (Samsung have also made a Windows Mixed Reality headset, the HMD Odyssey, that uses AMOLED displays to hit the same resolution as the Vive Pro, but it is about 25% more expensive than the Acer headset.)
The controllers are also worth mentioning. You get two in the box, and they’re quite similar in design to the hand controllers we’ve seen with the Rift and the Vive (although they’re closer to the latter). Each has a thumbstick, a touchpad, a menu button and a Windows button on top, with a trigger and secondary button on the bottom. Sliding off the battery compartment reveals a pairing button and two AA batteries, which never ran out in my week-or-so of testing.
We used the Acer Mixed Reality Headset in a number of situations, ranging from video games and 360-degree videos to more serene virtual reality spaces from both Microsoft and Valve.
Setting up the headset is very straightforward — you’re prompted to install the Windows Mixed Reality software, and from there you follow the prompts to ensure your PC meets the requirements, get an overview of the controllers and trace out a space in your room for moving around in. You get an omnipresent representation of this barrier, ensuring that you don’t accidentally collide with a wall when you’re in VR space.
Once complete, you’re left to explore the Beach House, Microsoft’s default VR gateway. You can watch videos, browse the internet, install VR apps and decorate the space as you see fit, although you can’t escape from the confines of the wall-free cliff-side villa.
You get around by pressing the thumbstick in your desired direction, moving the controller to choose your destination, and then releasing to teleport there. It’s a nice effect that removes the feeling of motion sickness and speeds up what would otherwise be tedious navigation.
Happily, the easy setup process also applies to Steam VR. If you have the headset connected (and the Mixed Reality Portal turned on), then Steam should recognise the headset automatically and offer to install the Steam VR app. After this, you can use the Steam VR app just like a Vive user.
The first thing I tried with the MRH was a 360-degree video. These are plentiful enough online these days; you can find several stunning examples on YouTube as well as dedicated sites.
I used the 360 Viewer extension for Edge in order to watch these videos, although other apps (free and paid) are also available to accomplish largely the same goals. Watching videos in VR is pretty fun, if a bit terrifying depending on the subject matter — a lap of the Le Mans was genuinely scary when you’re (virtually) sitting on the bonnet of a racecar!
The biggest issues I found with VR videos was a lack of quality — you need to stream video at high bitrates and at high resolutions in order for the experience to be convincing. These videos can be hard to find at times, and often a video that looked fun would be revealed as utterly rubbish five seconds in. Hopefully, we’ll see better curation of VR videos as these headsets become more popular.
The other fun thing to do in virtual reality is gaming. You can launch games from within the Mixed Reality App or SteamVR, and if you have a suitable controller — a gamepad for racing games, keyboard and mouse for a shooter or of course the actual Windows Mixed Reality controllers for dedicated VR games — then things are very straightforward indeed. However, not all games that support VR will work out of the box; some will require you to download beta versions, make changes to configuration files or otherwise hack things together. New games are generally much more VR-friendly than older ones, and I would imagine in five years’ time most games that make sense in VR will have this support built-in.
I had the most fun in games where your player character exists in a fixed position — racing games, rollercoaster simulators and spaceship shooting games. The new Elite was particularly immersive when played in VR, although you’ll need a HOTAS joystick for best results. Similarly impressive was Project Cars, although I faced a weird issue where my virtual camera was oddly placed, and I had to basically sit on the floor in order to be looking out from the position of the modelled player driver’s head; sitting on a chair would leave my head poking out of the sunroof. Still, being able to race along and look over my shoulder at my nearest competitor was a great feeling.
There are also games that support standing and moving VR. These require much more space to play properly, but the result is a uniquely physical experience that can get very real indeed. One excellent choice is called Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, where you’re set loose in a virtual arsenal to fire off rocket launchers, shoot off pistols akimbo or just throw grenades. The feeling of manually reloading an assault rifle alone is worth the price of admission, and there are so many funny moments that come from the natural gracelessness of first-time VR.
Because remastering a game for VR requires a fair amount of development time, you’ll need to repurchase some games in order to play them in VR. Fallout 4 VR (£40) and Doom VFR (£20) are two big budget examples, and ultimately I didn’t feel comfortable shelling out again for games that have received mixed reviews at best. In two to three years, we should start to see this trend reverse as games are designed to support VR from the get-go, but for now it’s a big tax on what is already a fairly hefty investment.
The largest obstacle to enjoying games on the Mixed Reality Headset is the interplay between SteamVR and the Microsoft Mixed Reality Portal. It’s very easy to accidentally press the controller button that brings up the Mixed Reality Portal, and it’s difficult then to get back into SteamVR (or your game) without taking off the headset.
Marathon gaming sessions are also much harder in VR. Getting the fit just right takes some time, but you’ll need to remove the headset periodically to let your face breathe which necessitates messing around with the fit again. In the cold winter months this isn’t too bad, but I couldn’t imagine using this (or indeed, almost any) VR headset on a sweltering summer day.
The Acer Mixed Reality Headset is a rather excellent alternative to the better-known Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. That’s not because the headset itself is stunningly different or more capable in any practical sense, but rather because it delivers broadly the same experience, with the same strengths and weaknesses, at much more agreeable price point.
Prior to the publication of this article, Amazon.com in the United States discounted four Windows Mixed Reality headsets by 50%, bringing them to between $200 and $250. Compared to the $399 cost of the Rift and the $599 cost of the Vive, this makes the Microsoft-backed alternative a much better deal. The price drop has since been reverted, but it will surely reach this level again if you’re willing to be patient.