Microsoft's budget Windows VR headsets roll out to developers soon

Acer's Mixed Reality Development Edition headset is slated to reach devs by end of month

A lucky few developers will be able to get their hands on a low-cost Windows virtual reality headset starting this month. Microsoft announced Wednesday that the Acer Mixed Reality Developer Edition headset will start rolling out to a handpicked batch of software makers starting the end of March, with more coming later.

This marks the first release of a Windows Mixed Reality headset, which Microsoft first previewed last year. The headsets are supposed to stand out from the crowd because of a lower price and their support for "inside-out" tracking that uses sensors on the device to determine a user's position, rather than relying on external trackers to gather that information. That's why Microsoft is calling them mixed reality headsets.

The headset will give software makers a way to test applications they're building before the expected consumer release of the hardware during the winter holiday season this year.

Launching the developer program is part of Microsoft’s overall push to get developers to build apps for Windows Mixed Reality devices, including the Acer headset, plus other devices from ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and 3Glasses. Those headsets are running the same Mixed Reality shell that powers the Microsoft HoloLens, but they differ in approach.

The HoloLens has a transparent visor that's designed to overlay digital objects on the physical world. The Acer headset and others like it are supposed to take information about the physical world and bring it into virtual reality.

The announcement also marks Microsoft’s official rebranding of the Windows Holographic shell to Windows Mixed Reality, a nod to its utility beyond the HoloLens. The goal behind the system, which will be coming to every PC with the Windows 10 Creators Update, is to provide a consistent substrate for building apps that run in 3D virtual spaces, whether they're displayed by headsets with transparent or with opaque visors.

Microsoft will also be providing guidance on how to build apps for the new opaque headsets from scratch, as well as how to port apps from the HoloLens or from other virtual reality platforms.

Game developers interested in getting their hands on the hardware can sign up for the ID@Xbox program. It’s unclear if the tech giant is prioritizing certain countries with this initial rollout, or if the headset will be globally available to qualified teams. The company also wouldn’t provide pricing information on the developer hardware.

There’s more coming in the future for Windows Mixed Reality. Microsoft said it plans to bring similar experiences to the Xbox One family of devices in 2018 but declined to offer specifics about what that entails.

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