We were all expecting some announcement by Microsoft at its annual Build conference and the Redmond company has not disappointed us: it has revealed price, availability and controllers for their cheap Windows 10 VR headsets.
If you don’t remember what these cheap headsets are and you’re too lazy to click the above link, well, Microsoft announced that it would have developed with partners like Dell, Acer and HP some super-cheap headsets. These headsets are tethered, but don’t require external cameras for positional tracking, since they use HoloLens technology to perform inside-out tracking (they have two cameras on the HMD and use that to detect the spatial position of the device). Quality isn’t top-notch, but they’re very cheap. They work out of the box with Windows 10 and can run all Windows 10 UWP apps, exactly as HoloLens. As I’ve already stated in this article, the purpose of Microsoft is not to sell hardware, but to become the ecosystem for AR and VR: all AR and VR devices should work natively with Windows 10 and run UWP apps. This is Microsoft’s dream.
One of the demo they did in the stage showcases the potentialities of such ecosystem:
Even if the demo is surely all pre-recorded (come on, HoloLenses aren’t able to handle all those polygons and interactions are not so perfect), what they show is true: whatever device you have, you just use Windows 10 as a layer of common work for all devices. This is very powerful.
Microsoft has announced the VR controllers for its headsets.
We were all wondering if these headset could have some controllers and here you are! They seem like the son of a Vive controller that has made love with an Oculus Touch controller (someone on reddit joke on the fact that they’ve taken the worst of both controllers!). They’re like the Vive in the sense that they’re wand-controllers, don’t seem to offer any form of hands presence. But they have these rings and the thumbsticks that reminds a lot the ones of the Oculus Touch. The design and comfort doesn’t seem to me the one of Oculus Touch… they seem cheaper products. Since they’re half a magic wand and half a donut, I’ll call them the “Magic donuts”.
Maybe you’re wondering “how the hell these controllers can be tracked if we don’t have external cameras like the Lighthouse stations?”. Good question. The answer is that the tracking consists in two parts:
- Some tracking performed using cameras on the headset. The headset cameras (I guess the same cameras that perform positional tracking, but honestly I don’t know if there are other hidden cameras) see the tracking leds on the controllers and reconstruct the pose from those ones. The question is: how can the cameras detect those bright point that are on the “donuts” of the controllers? My best guess is that these points will shine thanks to the battery of the controller, but I’m just supposing.
- Some gyroscopes/accelerators on the controllers (IMU sensors), that helps in detecting their speed and movements.
When the user is not looking at the controllers, of course, you have only the second type of tracking… and we all know that this is not sufficient to detect position of hands in VR. The system can maybe infer the exact pose of the controllers for the first instants it goes out of the field of view… and make some reasonable assumptions when they’re out of sight for long times. Microsoft says that it will use inverse kinematics, meaning that knowing the acceleration and rotation it has had in the last times, it can try to reconstruct a position of the controller that has sense, that corresponds to an estimated body pose that is natural and probable. I’m quite skeptical about this calculations, especially because we all know that IMU tracking tends to drift over time, so if I will not look at my hands for much time, tracking will become terrible in the end. For this reason I’ll assume that when the controller is in the field of view of the user, the tracking will work. When the controller is out of the field of view since few time, it will be acceptable. When the controller is out of sight since too much time, it will be unacceptable.
This will mean that epic moves like taking shotguns from the back in Robo Recall will not be available with Windows headsets at the moment.
Of course I’ve to try these devices before expressing an opinion, but at the moment I’m not that impressed by them and the functionalities they promise. But I think they’re ok, since they’re coherent with Microsoft purposes. Microsoft headsets will be good-enough headsets, cheap and very simple to use (no setup, no external devices, just plug in Windows 10 PC and they work); their controllers are the same: good-enough, cheap and work out of the box. Most of the interactions we do in VR happens with our hands in front of our eyes, so if the tracking FOV is wide enough, most interactions will be OK with this controllers. If someone wants high-tier VR experience, just buys Vive or Oculus.
About headset quality: since my last post, I’ve read new reviews about the headset and the positional tracking has surely got better. Now they’re like a cheap version of a Vive. Controllers have just been announced and no one has still been able to test them, so we really don’t know how good they are.
These headsets (& controllers) will be available from the next holidays. US & Canada developers can already pre-order the HMD (damn, why do I live in Italy??). They should ship in August 2017. Acer headset costs only $299, while HP’s one price tag is $329. If you want the Magic donut controllers, you can buy a bundle with Acer headset at only $399! Microsoft says that will be up to the headsets producers to decide if ship the HMD with the controllers or not. Since all headsets and controllers should all abide Microsoft specifications, one could technically have Acer headset with HP controllers… opening completely the virtual reality market to freedom.
I continue thinking that these headsets can be a game changer for the VR market: they’re cheap and user friendly. And cheap not only because of the controllers, but also because of the required VR-ready PC. According to Road To VR
Among other things, these specs imply a PC that could be running with hardware as low as the 2009 AMD Anthlon II series (some have 4 cores) and 2010 Nvidia GT 400 series (some support DX12). And what that means is a very cheap PC, that may also be ancient by today’s standards. If these specs are all that’s required to run Windows Holographic, even many lower-end laptops should work, compared to what would be required for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
This means that not only these headsets costs the half of a Vive, but they also don’t require you to change your PC! And they offer all the most important features for VR: room scale and natural controllers. They also enable VR to be played almost everywhere, since you don’t have to fix cameras to your walls or something like that (Kipman says that you can move everywhere with the headset… but if it is tethered to a PC, how the hell can I move between rooms???) . They work out of the box with Windows 10, that thanks to Creators Update will show you a virtual reality version of the operating system, where you are in a virtual room and launch apps (something like the Cliff House they’ve showcased some times ago). Yes, the experience is not of the best level, but most of people don’t need to play the best. Take smartphones as an example: people prefer super-cheap Chinese smartphones compared to high-tier Samsung ones, because they’re good enough and cost a lot less.
These headsets have really the power to disrupt the market, to gain immediately an enormous market share: PSVR is the most sold VR tethered headset and the reason is that it is cheap. Microsoft cheap headsets can be the PSVR of the PC ecosystem. I think that the only key to see who will succeed is content: Oculus and Vive have already amazing games ready for them (Robo Recall, for instance) and these games are not compatible with UWP platform. There’s no content for these new headsets and Microsoft should pour a lot of money in the market to have devs to make valuable applications for that. In my opinion the king content will be the key to understand if these headsets will disrupt the market or not.
Hope I will able to get these headsets so I’ll be able to review them thoroughly. In the meantime, let me know your opinions about them!
(Header image by UploadVR)