Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR

Our verdict of the Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset:
It’s difficult to judge this when there’s so little content available. The tracking technology is promising, but hold off until we see SteamVR support. Right now, the Oculus Rift represents much better value for money; with the Vive remaining the best high-end choice for those who can afford it.
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Admit it: you probably thought VR was going to fizzle out. But now Microsoft wants in, so much so that they’re baking support for virtual reality right into the OS. Only they’re calling it “Mixed Reality”, because they think VR has a bad name for itself and they want to be special. Microsoft sent a reference design out to various companies, and the Dell Visor is the first Mixed Reality headset to make it to market. Don’t be fooled though: it’s VR in all but name.

Of course, the Dell Visor isn’t entirely a new type of product. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive



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have been on the market for over a year now, having received numerous price cuts. The Oculus Rift now costs as little as $400 with two camera and motion controllers. The Vive costs $600. The Dell Visor sits at the lower end at $450 with the motion controllers.

Dell Visor Design and Specification

  • Weight: 1.3lbs (0.6Kg)
  • 1440 x 1440px resolution per eye via individual 90Hz LCD with RGB sub-pixels.
  • Fresnel lenses with 110-degree max field of view.
  • 3-meter combined USB and HDMI cable, with stereo breakout on headset side.
  • Rigid headband with flip-up display.
  • Inside-out tracking system via dual cameras on the headset, requiring no external sensors.

A rigid headband secures the headset, and feels very similar to the PlayStation VR


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. Despite being heavier than the Rift, it’s more comfortable, as the weight is placed on top of your head rather than pulling the headset into your face. The rigid strap is easy to adjust and tighten via a dial at the rear.

Since headphones aren’t built-in, you’ll need to supply your own. This was where I encountered my first problem: the rigid head-strap, sitting just above my ears and being quite wide, stopped my headphones from actually touching my ears.

The screen of the headset is able to flip up, giving you quick access to real world. In theory anyway – if you wear glasses like me, you may find the bottom of the visor catches on your glasses, preventing it from fully lifting.

It should be noted however that the IPD is not adjustable in hardware. Both the Oculus Rift and Vive have a physical dial to adjust the Interpupillary Distance; the Dell does not. It has a software control, but this was difficult to unearth and no instructions were given during setup.

Another slight annoyance: the box doesn’t contain a Bluetooth adapter, which is required to connect the controllers. For use with a laptop, this is unlikely to be an issue, but most desktops don’t have an integral Bluetooth controller. Other high end headsets include a Bluetooth controller in the headset itself. The fact that the Dell Visor doesn’t, makes the controllers feel a little disjointed to the headset – as if they were designed by someone else entirely and just thrown in the box as an afterthought.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality featured controllers

Setting Up Windows Mixed Reality

Before you can get started with the Dell Visor, or any of the new MR headsets, you’ll need to update Windows to the so-called Creator’s Update

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, or more technically “Windows Feature Update 1709”. This is an massive update which makes some fundamental changes to your system and is likely to break things. We strongly suggest you take a full backup first. You may also need to clean up some disk space, and mine took about an hour to download and install.

You’ll be prompted to install this update automatically after plugging in the headset if you haven’t already. I actually had to run through quite a few restarts and updates before things finally worked, since I hadn’t turned this PC on in over a week. (Yes, Windows does seem to update on an almost daily basis nowadays, whether that’s to install security patches or disable your favorite settings, like the one that says you don’t want advertising on your start menu).

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Once all that’s done, setup is fairly smooth. You can trace your room scale boundaries by walking around the edge with your headset facing your PC. It’s a little odd to do it this way – using the controllers would have been much more natural, as Oculus and SteamVR do, but it works regardless. Alternatively, you can just use the device in standing-only mode, with no boundaries.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality make boundaries

It’s at this point I hit a few snags though.

First: like most desktop PCs, my machine doesn’t have Bluetooth. Luckily I found one in a drawer that I knew would come in useful one day.

Second: the cable is ludicrously short at just 3m. I’ve moved my VR room to a very modest 2m x 3m playspace, and I couldn’t even make full use of that. I did try to use the HTC Vive’s link box to extend the cable a little, but the headset complained it wasn’t USB3 (it was).

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality cable

You won’t be able to move much unless you turn around your computer so the ports are at the front.Next, it failed to recognise the controllers were on and paired. Despite successfully completing that step during setup, they apparently hadn’t been added. I needed to open up Windows settings and manually pair each one, using a generic 0000 as a pairing key. After that, all was well.

A short intro sequence later, and you’re throw into the Windows Mixed Reality Environment.

Don’t move anything in your room, though. I must have moved my beanbag at some point, and upon next putting on the headset, it said it couldn’t recognize the environment, and would need to me to setup the boundaries again.

Microsoft’s Messy Mixed Marketing Madness

The term Mixed Reality has been misappropriated by Microsoft for marketing. Until now, it’s been widely used in VR circles to mean positionally tracking a video camera in order to film VR activity with a green screen. The producer can then mix recorded game footage from the perspective of the camera with the real world footage of a person. Here’s an example (don’t get too excited by the footage though, if you purchase the Dell Visor you won’t have access to anything on SteamVR until Christmas at the earliest):

Microsoft however says Mixed Reality an umbrella term for all of the holographic, VR, and AR products they are (yet) to release. But the first generation of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality headsets are actually just VR. They don’t “mix” anything from the real world, and don’t have the capability to even pass through a simple video stream like the HTC Vive does. Make no mistake, the Dell Visor is a VR headset. Mixed Reality is simply a marketing term.

The Mixed Reality Market Truths

You’ll see a number of first generation Mixed Reality headsets arrive over the course of the next month, and they all have identical specs – except for the Samsung Odyssey. In fact, they even have the exact same tacky controllers. The headset hardware is manufactured by third parties: Dell, Acer etc. But the design is essentially dictated by Microsoft, as is the tracking system and controllers. That’s why if these aren’t great, we can and should lay the blame squarely at Microsoft’s feet.



Acer AH101-D8EY Windows Mixed Reality Headset and 2 Wireless Controllers


Acer AH101-D8EY Windows Mixed Reality Headset and 2 Wireless Controllers

Display Size: 2.89″ x 2 & Resolution: 2,880 x 1,440 (1,440 x 1,440 per eye)
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$399.99

It’s not clear why the Samsung Odyssey is the odd one out. It has a significantly higher screen resolution. It’s likely that it’s just the next phase of the reference design. It wasn’t announced until much later in the process, and there are no plans to sell the device in Europe.

Display Quality

At 1440 x 1440px per eye, the resolution of the Dell Visor is a little higher than both Oculus rift and HTC Vive, though still not high enough that you can read text comfortably. We don’t have an accurate way to measure field of view (FOV), but it did feel smaller than Vive and probably about the same as the Oculus Rift. This could be purely because the screen isn’t pulled in toward your face.

In terms of brightness, it’s about the same as Rift, though not as bright as Vive (which many claim is abnormally bright). There is definitely still a visible mesh, or so-called screen-door effect – that hasn’t been eliminated. And despite tweaking the software IPD setting (there is no physical adjustment), I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that the convergence was always off.

Overall, it feels neither here nor there compared to other high end PC headsets. The resolution jump isn’t as noticeable as I had hoped. Given that it’s been a year and a half since the first VR headsets hit the shelves, my expectations were high. It’s just… fine.

But if you were hoping for a more significant jump, I’d recommend holding out until the Samsung Odyssey hits the shelves, or the PiMax 8K next year.

Tracking Quality

A few years ago, “tracking quality” wasn’t really a thing we would objectively review. The first developer iteration of the Oculus Rift didn’t even know where your head was, only the rotational value of where it was looking – and there were no Oculus motion controllers at the time.

The final consumer release of the Oculus Rift came with a single tracking camera, and was designed to be used while seated at your desk. But Oculus was soon playing catch-up to the HTC Vive, which for the first time allowed users to physically walk around a play area up to around 4 meters squared, by placing laser emitters in the corner of the room. Those who experienced this kind of “room scale tracking” soon realised it was now a must-have feature. When the Oculus Touch controllers

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first came out, Oculus began testing its own experimental room-scale tracking, which required at least two cameras.

And now we have the first generation Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which are pushing forward in a slightly different direction. Designed with the belief that having to set up tracking cameras or basestations is far too much effort for the average consumer (they’re probably right in that regard), these WMR headsets use a new kind of “inside-out” tracking called SLAM, or Simultaneous Localization and Mapping.

The cameras are built into the headset itself. They don’t track where the headset is directly, but rather how the surroundings change as you move around. Combined with the standard set of gyroscopic sensors, the software knows that if it sees the wall moving upwards or getting closer, it’s because you looked down, or moved toward the wall. It’s a very clever system that I suspect will ultimately be the future of all VR and AR headsets. Oculus has already demonstrated similar technology in their high end standard system, codenamed Santa Cruz.

But, it’s far from perfect, as expected from a first generation outing of the technology.

Controller Issues

Mainly, it’s the controllers that present a problem. The inside-out tracking system can only track what the camera sees. It does this with two cameras, roughly positioned in front of your eyes. This is fine for the headset itself, but the controllers aren’t always visible. If you put your hand behind your back, or to your side, they disappear from the field of view of the headset’s tracking cameras, or they get stuck in place, creating a mismatch between real world actions and the virtual representations. The system makes a best guess using gyroscopic data for a short time, so swinging your hand temporarily behind you does result in your virtual hand matching the motion. But this only works briefly before tracking is completely lost.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality controller behind back

With a ring of tracking LEDs, the controllers are just as badly affected by bright sunlight as Oculus Touch is. Despite solid positional tracking on the headset, I experienced numerous tracking issues with the controllers, with them often jumping off to a meter or so in front of me. Don’t think you can solve this by playing in the dark though: the black and white cameras need light!

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality controller 1

The other issue with controllers is that they feel like there’s a very slight delay between my real world actions and the controllers, and in-between those motions is a subtle but nonetheless present smoothing algorithm. Or more simply, they seem to slide around a bit.

Windows Mixed Reality Home

Welcome to your virtual home. I hope you like it, because it’s the only one you’ve got at the moment. It’s not quite palatial, but it’s nice and airy, with a big underground cinema room. I should note, there are far better VR movie viewing apps on both SteamVR and the Oculus store.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality burger hologram

You can’t paint the walls, but you can decorate your home with various widgets, or as Microsoft would like you call them, “holograms”. I was quite pleased that I could placed a giant hamburger obnoxiously in the middle of the hallway. Some include a short animation when you click on them. They’re all a bit rubbish though, really. To put it simply, this is exactly what I would expect Microsoft to come up with for a VR experience.

The thing is: SteamVR does the same, but better. You can get special objects from the games you own, or through achievements. Those have a meaning attached to them, something unique you can show off – and you can invite your friends round to hang out. What Microsoft offer is a meaningless store of 3D animated curiosities. If it tied this into your Xbox game achievements, it might make sense. But right now, it’s just silly.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality toaster

Mildly amusing for all of 5 seconds.You’re obviously going to get a lot more use out of the Windows Mixed Reality system if you’re heavily invested in apps on the Windows store. Stock trackers, for instance – that could be cool, I guess? Weather widgets. These are all neat, productivity focussed ideas. Oooh, a huge spreadsheet of quarterly performance stuck on the wall next to your cinema. Doesn’t that sound fun! Having to move your virtual avatar around a real home environment in order to multitask – that sounds much more effective than alt-tabbing on a flat monitor. The possibilities are … countable on one hand.

The thing is: I’d love to be convinced that general computing has a place in a VR environment, but if this is the best we can come up with, I don’t think it does. VR is fantastic for creativity

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, for education, for gaming. I can’t fathom going back to gaming on a flat monitor; even 2D games like Civ I play in SteamVR cinema mode now. But spreadsheets? Edge browser? Skype? Yeh!

No.

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Just what you’ve always wanted: the Edge browser, in VR! It’s just as janky as it is in 2D.But remember: this is Mixed Reality. Once we have the ability to overlay these widgets onto our real world environment with some Augmented Reality headsets, general computing starts to make a lot more sense. It doesn’t exclude the use of a keyboard and mouse: it augments it.

Another Walled Garden?

There’s also an issue of exclusivity. From what we know, the Windows Mixed Reality environment is only compatible with WMR headsets. Neither Vive nor Rift will have access. There’s a chance this could change, but Microsoft has given no indication that they will be allowed in, and it seems like the sort of thing it would say if that were the case. Of course, this is no different to the Oculus home environment right now either, but that exclusivity has been a bone of contention in VR circles for a while now. Many enthusiasts opt to not support Oculus on that basis alone.

In addition, the Windows Store is unlikely to get exclusive games of significance, unlike Oculus which has them in droves.

Gaming, or the Distinct Lack of It

At the time of review, the Dell Visor is not compatible with Steam VR.

I tried all manner of tricks to make SteamVR work. Opted into SteamVR beta. Launched a game from Steam anyway while the headset was on.  I tried to go directly to the SteamVR Windows Mixed Reality app wrapper, but wasn’t given the option to install it without signing up to the developer preview. It should be available to the wider public in December. I even tried the Acer HMD utility that some people have reported success with, but no luck.

Sadly, this means I was unable to test the headset out with my favorite game, Rec Room. There’s a few enjoyable games on the Windows Store, but nothing I don’t already own on SteamVR and haven’t already played to death.

We were also promised Minecraft. Minecraft has been compatible – both officially and unofficially – with the Vive and Oculus Rift for well over a year now. In the Windows Mixed Reality environment however, it can only be played on a flat screen with traditional controls. There is no VR Minecraft for WMR headsets as of writing.

Oh – there is one exclusive. Are you sitting down? IT’S A HALO VR THING! By which I mean, it’s a 2D shooting gallery that lasts about 5 minutes and isn’t worth the download. Sorry. It really is that bad.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality halo vr

This is as horrendous as it looks.If this is the best Microsoft has to offer, I don’t think they should have bothered at all.

Should You Buy a Dell Visor?

No.

The overall experience left me wanting. Considering this costs a little more than an Oculus Rift bundle, and is newer, I just expected better. The inside out tracking eliminates the need for external cameras, true, but it also introduces its own set of problems. While the headset itself gets perfect positional tracking – unless you happen to move something in your room – the tracking of the controllers is terrible. It’s good enough for basic UI interactions where your hands sit out in front, but heavy gamers will quickly get frustrated. Just raise your arms above your head and you lose tracking. Perhaps this will improve with software updates – the Oculus Touch controllers were notoriously bad at launch, and it took about 3 months before Oculus sorted those issues out.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality featured overview

The controllers themselves feel cheap, and aren’t particularly ergonomic. At one point, I even managed to pull the battery cover off while casually navigating around the home. The inclusion of both a trackpad and thumbstick implies they tried to copy the best bits of both the Vive wands and Oculus Touch, but failed miserably, instead producing a final product worse than the inspiration.

The lack of built-in headphones is frustrating, especially when the rigid headstrap even prevents you from using your own comfortably. The fact that you need a separate Bluetooth dongle just to use the controllers makes the whole experience feel completely disjointed.

The best thing I can say about the Windows Mixed Reality Environment… is that it shows promise. It’s pleasant enough, and being able to leave trailers running in the movie room or music playing from the Groove app while you wander around the rest of the house is quite fun. Some virtual parties here could be fun (though currently lacks any social support). But most of it just feels… forced? The holograms widgets are uninspiring, and there’s little else in the way of customization. And more to the point, we already have VR apps that do all of this, better.

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality beachouse

Moreover, both Oculus and SteamVR do the virtual environment better too. You can change your SteamVR home environment, add 3D objects from games you own, and invite friends to visit. The only thing you can’t do is run multiple windowed apps, though you can still access your traditional desktop. When I have wanted to interact with something on the desktop, it’s usually been Discord, trying to chat with friends while playing an immersive game on Tabletop Simulator. That works fine.

Oculus is soon to release a major dashboard update that allows you run multiple desktops in the native Oculus Home environment, as well as customize it with objects. They both have unique avatar options. Sure, they won’t have native access to universal Windows apps, but I’m struggling to see if that’s a compelling reason to choose the Windows Mixed Reality environment. Do you really want Excel permanently pinned to your virtual wall?

Dell Visor Mixed Reality Headset Review: Microsoft Makes Another Fine Mess of VR dell visor mixed reality holograms wall

A little gothic architecture to customize my beach house.Windows Mixed Reality has a long way to go yet, and at roughly the same price point as the Oculus Rift, I just can’t recommend the Dell Visor, or any other upcoming WMR headsets. The Oculus Rift might be fiddly to set up and require external tracking cameras, but the controllers are superior, and you get a ton of fantastic games out of the box.

I apologise now if much of this review has been comparing the WMR experience to Oculus or Vive, but once you’ve tasted the best, it’s incredibly hard to take a step backwards. And ultimately, that’s what this feels like: a step backwards.

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