The best test of any virtual reality system is how quickly can you forget you’re wearing a virtual reality system? By this measure alone, Acer’s Windows Mixed Reality Headset (and the included motion controllers) is a very good VR system.
Within minutes of donning the headset and finding a VR game to play, I lost myself in the experience. And it wasn’t just me. Each person I asked to try Acer’s headset has the same reaction, especially when I dropped them into the excellent Super Hot virtual reality game.
Said one coworker, “This is definitely the best thing I’ve ever done in VR.”
It’s a promising start for Acer and, more importantly, for Microsoft’s virtual reality efforts, though the company insists on calling it “Mixed Reality.” Let’s get this straight: This isn’t augmented reality. There is no mixing of real and virtual worlds with the Acer Headset. It’s a VR headset that cuts off your vision of the real world, but that allows you, thanks to the motion controllers, to bring your hand movements into your virtual activities.
We’re gonna need a bigger PC
At $399.99, the Acer Windows Mixed Reality system is on par with the Oculus Rift, now $399.99 with controllers. Unlike Oculus Rift, Acer’s headset and controllers uses inside-out tracking to keep track of your head and your hands (this is true for all Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets). What that means is Windows Mixed Reality headsets don’t use separate, external sensors to track position. Instead, there are sensors on the headset. The controllers include a ring of LED lights that the headset uses to track their position and orientation.
Here’s what the Windows Mixed Reality system does have in common with the Oculus system: Both require systems with significant horsepower. (You can check if your PC is up to the challenge here.) It also requires the latest version of Windows 10, the Fall Creators Update, which adds support for the Mixed Reality Portal.
The Acer Mixed Reality headset is attached to a long cable that splits into two cables near the end; one is a USB 3.0 jack and the other HDMI.
It took me some time to find a computer that could support this jack configuration. I have multiple PCs that include discrete graphics, but none with an HDMI output. Instead I had one or two with a DisplayPort and a Surface Book 2 with a USB-C port. I got a Club 3D USB-C-to-HDMI adapter (they cost about $23) and was finally on my way.
As soon as I plugged in the headset, my Windows 10 system found it and started installing the necessary drivers. Then it launched the Mixed Reality Portal screen. This is the interface where you manage Mixed Reality settings. It also double-checked my system specs and told me that, with my Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, Intel Core i7 CPU, 16 GB of RAM, almost a terabyte of hard drive space, and built in Bluetooth for the controllers, I was “good to go!” for the Mixed Reality environment.
Even with the cable snaking out of its side (plus a shorter one to connect to a set of headphones), Acer’s Mixed Reality headset is comfortable to wear. There’s a cushioned, adjustable ring that hugs the top of your head. Hanging off the front of that ring is the blue and black visor. It flips down onto the front of your face and easily accommodated my glasses. If you wear vision correcting lenses, you’ll need them since there’s no way to adjust the optics on the Acer headset.
Inside the visor is a strip of foam that runs around your eyes and over the bridge of your nose. In my unit, I noticed the nose portion was easily dislodged.
Before I could use the headset, I had to power up the dual-AA-battery-powered controllers. They have a Bluetooth pairing button in the battery compartment. The Mixed Reality portal guided me through the pairing process.
With the controllers paired, I put on the headset.
Welcome to my VR house
Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Interface metaphor is an open-plan Cliff House. I found myself in one of the “rooms” (there are no doors, ceilings, or complete walls, so “room” is being generous). Floating in front of me were exact replicas of my controllers. I was able to reach out and pick them up, even though I couldn’t see my hands. The Acer headset uses its dual sensors to show me exactly where they are in my virtual and real environment. That marriage made it possible for me to “see” the controllers without really being able to see them.
The headset tracked the controllers perfectly. I could twist them this way and that and move them all around my body as the virtual version kept perfect sync. The only time the headset appeared to lose them is when I moved the controllers too close — within an inch or so — from my face.
There are a lot of buttons on the controllers: There’s a touchpad on the left side, a thumb stick on the right, a menu button, a trigger on the opposite side, a grab button, and a Windows button to get you back to the Cliff Home. This will not bother most gamers who deal with at least as many options on their gaming controllers, but I occasionally got confused about which button to hit when.
I had the option of using the Mixed Reality headset while seated in front of my computer or while standing. I’m the adventuresome type, so I chose standing. As a result, I had to use the headset to create a virtual bounding box, otherwise, I could easily walk into a real wall or piece of furniture while playing in my virtual world.
To make a bounding box, you hold the headset in front of your computer and then use it to literally trace the area within which you want to play. On my Surface Book 2 screen, I could see the irregular shape I drew.
There’s roughly 12 feet of cable connected to the headset, which means you have a lot of room to play. Unfortunately, I often found that even with the virtual bounding box — which you see in the environment as translucent walls (walk into or through one and you see the kind of ripple you get when you drop a rock in water — I never really had enough room.
With setup done, I used the controller to transport from one room to another — it’s faster than slowly gliding around the space — and then started opening and placing windows on the walls. I also found an area of 3D objects that I could manipulate and place throughout the Cliff Home. At one point, I placed a virtual hamburger on the floor and then made a stretching gesture with the two controllers to enlarge it. Suddenly I was inside the burger and couldn’t figure out how to shrink it or get out. After a few minutes of struggle, I discovered the shrink gesture and got the burger down to a manageable size.
The Cliff House is fine, and I know I can throw up a movie screen and watch something there, but I really wanted to get out of that austere place as soon as possible. I opened the slightly crumpled Windows Store shopping bag that was sitting in a corner and started perusing my VR app options.
I didn’t see a lot of good stuff at first, but my son suggested Super Hot. The game was on sale for $19.99, so I downloaded it. Even though I played it multiple times, it never showed up in my app library, which meant I had to keep going to the Windows Store to find and open it.
Super Hot is the perfect kind of game for your first-time VR experience. It’s a first-person action game with a unique twist: Your movements control the speed of the game. For instance, if someone shoots at you, you can slow the bullet way down by moving slowly. Move faster and everything around you speeds up.
As I played, I noted that the controllers were replaced by hands that could grasp guns and other objects, some of which I picked up and threw (the controllers have straps, so you don’t accidentally throw them). In addition, the headgear tracked my movement so precisely, I could dodge virtual bullets, objects, and punches. I played and then watched with satisfaction as others did, too. To the outside world, we all looked crazy, but in the virtual space, it was so immersive.
You’re still in the real world
Aside from needing a larger space for play, I noticed that we all had a habit of getting a little tangled up in the cable. Super Hot required turning around to, say, punch the guy coming up behind you. Do that often enough, and the cable can get wrapped around your legs. The other issue I had is that the Mixed Reality Portal would crash once per game.
The Mixed Reality Portal recommends that you use the headset when your computer is plugged in, and I can see why. I did a few sessions without external power and, within 30 minutes, my system had chewed through more than 50% of its battery life.
As a baseline VR experience, Windows 10 and the Acer Mixed Reality Headset and Controllers nails it. It’s comfortable to wear for hours, the visuals are good (though they resolution could be better), and the responsiveness and tracking is excellent.
If you’re a Windows Fan and have the right hardware (an expensive laptop or desktop), this is the perfect entry-point into the world of virtual reality. Yes, it’s more expensive than, say, a Samsung Gear VR headset ($129 with controller), but you can’t run that system without an expensive smartphone. In addition, as much as I like the Gear VR’s single controller, the Acer system’s dual controller setup creates a much more immersive and tangible VR experience.
I just hope the Windows Mixed Reality VR library expands quickly.
Acer Mixed Reality Headset and Controllers
Easy set-up • Truly immersive VR • Controller tracking is stunning
Need more quality VR apps and Games • Not sold on the Cliff House interface
The Bottom Line
Want to get into Windows virtual reality? This is a great way to start.
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