Microsoft held an event today in San Francisco dedicated to its Windows Mixed Reality platform, where Kinect and HoloLens mastermind Alex Kipman showed off some impressive live demos and unveiled a new headset and motion controller combo from Samsung. In a separate press demo room following the presentation, we were able to experience the new hardware, called Samsung Odyssey, running a virtual reality Halo experience, Halo Recruit, to showcase the platform’s underlying technology.
From my admittedly brief experience using the Odyssey running the full version of Halo Recruit, I can say that Microsoft and Samsung have managed to design and develop something that feels nearly identical in image and software quality, as well as comfort, to the Oculus Rift. Odyssey is even priced and packaged similarly, with built-in headphones and motion controllers built to Microsoft’s specs that resemble a cross between Oculus Touch and the HTC Vive controllers. The whole thing will cost $499 starting November 6th, while Halo Recruit launches on October 17th with Microsoft’s Fall Creators Update.
Of course, Oculus pretty much dominates the virtual reality market, with a growing library of existing games and cinematic experiences on top of the financial and technical support of its owner, Facebook. However, where Samsung, and by extension Microsoft, do have an advantage is in accessibility. The Odyssey does not require a ton of cables snaking through a living room to your PC, because it uses what’s known as inside out positional tracking that lets the headset tell the PC where your body is, while the motion controllers take care of your hands. (Oculus and Vive both require external tracking hardware placed either on a desk or mounted to the wall or ceiling.)
That’s a big part of Microsoft’s mixed reality push and why the headsets from partners Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and now Samsung might just catch on. While the phrase has always sounded like a bit of marketing jargon, and it certainly to some extent still is, mixed reality is effectively the idea that you can blend the best of virtual reality, like high-fidelity visuals and immersive and interactive worlds, with the promise of augmented reality, which fuses your real surroundings with digital objects. It involves letting a headset see the physical space you’re standing or sitting in with cameras and sensors, while software merges the two worlds into one with object recognition and other feats of programming.
While the Odyssey headset, and a lot of what Microsoft has showed off both today and in the past, looks and feels strictly closer to VR, the headsets are in theory capable of tracking your body in space. That’s what allows them to do positional tracking without requiring you set up cumbersome cameras. Down the line, Microsoft wants to take those capabilities and expand the range of experiences these headsets can offer into ones where VR objects are dropped into the real world and the lines between that technology and AR blur. New demos like Star Wars: Jedi Challenge on Lenovo’s Mirage headset show off what that might look like in the future.
Onstage today, Kipman also showed off an impressive demo of standard Windows productivity apps inside a virtual mansion the company calls the Cliff House, which will act as the central hub of its Mixed Reality platform in the same fashion as Oculus Home. Though unlike with Oculus Home, Kipman was able to move around the space naturally and without worrying about the line of sight of nearby cameras. In the future, Kipman imagines everything from our chat rooms to our computer screens will be virtual objects that either exist in a virtual world like Cliff House or get augmented over real-life scenes like your desk at work or the wall of your living room. Mixed reality is the promise that headsets will do both seamlessly, and that there won’t be a hard division between AR and VR.
Right now, however, we’re still mostly in VR territory. Playing Halo Recruit, I didn’t have to worry about bumping into an imaginary software wall that meant I would lose the system’s positional tracking. But the game was rather simple — it involved an elaborate target practice simulation in a training facility within the Halo universe — and didn’t involve anything beyond what you’d expect from a standard VR game. I can easily see the convenience benefits of having solid inside out positional tracking for other apps and games. Playing a ported version of the excellent Superhot VR, which does make you move around more actively, I felt a lot more freedom. But mixed reality remains more a roadmap than a viable platform.
Still, Oculus wouldn’t need to be too worried about Microsoft’s competing push if not for both the comfort and entry-level PC requirements the Windows Mixed Reality platform enjoys. Samsung’s Odyssey headset felt just as good as the Oculus Rift, and Microsoft says PCs as cheap as $500 can run less intensive experiences, which is cheaper than the recommended minimum rigs for Rift and Vive. And the software quality from Microsoft is surprisingly solid, with fluid VR motion and high-res visuals on Halo Recruit that made it look indistinguishable from a high-end Rift game.
So Microsoft may be pretty far off from Kipman’s grand vision of mixed reality, in which we’re all donning headsets all day long and working, conversing, and hanging out in a sci-fi blend of the real and the virtual. Yet what the company has accomplished so far is both a step toward that vision and a strong challenge to Facebook and Oculus.