Acer's Windows VR headset shows promise, needs polish

Hands on with an early version of the first Windows Mixed Reality headset

Microsoft unveiled the first Windows Mixed Reality headset Wednesday, and an early look at a prototype version of the hardware shows promise, along with room for improvement.

The Acer Mixed Reality Development Edition headset will start rolling out to developers later this month, but Microsoft offered a demo of a pre-release prototype during the Game Developers Conference this week.

I wasn't allowed to photograph the device, but it looked like an almost entirely black and less branded version of the headset illustration that Microsoft provided. The display portion of the headset felt slightly smaller than the full-sized Rift and Vive headsets that I'm used to, but I didn't have any handy for a comparison. It was certainly lighter than those other devices. For a prototype, it felt solid.

The major features on the prototype's visor were a pair of cameras that allow it to track the user without an external sensor. This "inside-out" tracking is a hallmark of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets that Microsoft is working on with its partners, and it's based on the work the company did with the HoloLens.

Inside-out tracking differs from the current systems for the Vive and Rift, which require that users set up external sensors to track themselves in VR. Using the inside-out system means people don't have to worry about blocking an external sensor and losing tracking, which is possible with the Rift and Vive.

Unlike some other headsets, including the Rift and Vive, I didn't have to put my glasses into the Acer HMD before donning it. Once the headset was over my face, tightening it in place was a matter of pulling a single tab on the headband behind my head.

The headset doesn’t have onboard speakers or headphones, though its specifications call for an onboard audio jack that would let users plug in headphones. For the purposes of the demo, I was hearing sound from a PC played back through the speakers of a Surface Hub, so it's hard to judge how well that system will work.

Once the headset was put in place, a Microsoft representative handed me a Xbox One controller, which I would use to control my experience. I was walked through a virtual apartment, which featured walls peppered with Windows Mixed Reality apps.

The video app allowed me to look at standard 2D and 360-degree video, which looked remarkably clear for a headset that's supposed to retail for less than US$300. Microsoft also had a handful of other immersive experiences, including ports of its HoloTour and Galaxy Explorer apps for the HoloLens, which were redesigned to work with opaque headsets like Acer's.

The Windows Mixed Reality shell also includes a Desktop app that lets users see what's on their computer's desktop at the moment. It's meant to allow users to interact with Windows apps that aren't built for in-headset use without having to take off the headset they're wearing.

If there was one constant frustration from the experience, it was motion blur. The prototype's displays could only refresh 60 times per second, which led to some pretty aggressive and disorienting blurring whenever I turned my head. That problem is supposed to be fixed with the shipping version of Acer's developer headgear, which will sport displays that will be able to refresh up to 90 times a second, like the Rift and Vive.

Refresh rate with a tethered headset is only partially a function of the hardware on a user's face, however. The other issue is the PC hardware driving the experience. Microsoft wouldn't give me the specs for the demo machine, or offer any reference for how it compares to the minimum specifications the company offered last year.

The single headband design also proved increasingly uncomfortable as the demo wore on and the headset leaned against my nose. Developers should be getting a version of the hardware that's lighter, which may help deal with some of those concerns.

I also experienced some tracking drift when switching in and out of apps using the headset. It's something that should be refined by the consumer launch of the product but does seem to be a risk of the headset's inside-out tracking.

Unlike the HoloLens, the Acer hardware won't support gesture tracking. Navigation inside mixed reality, in that case, will require another form of input. I'm a video game enthusiast, so navigating with the Xbox One controller felt natural, but that may not be the case for other folks.

Even after the developer edition ships, Acer will have a chance to further refine its headset for consumer release. Microsoft has said that its OEM partners are expected to release consumer versions of their headsets by the winter holiday season this year, and it seems like they're still on pace to hit that target.

It’s unclear if other headset makers will be releasing developer hardware, though it seems likely that we'll see something from one of the other partners: ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and 3Glasses.

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