What is Windows Mixed Reality? It’s simpler than you think

All right, let’s cut to the chase. What is Windows Mixed Reality? You’ve probably seen the headlines by now, companies like Dell, Samsung, and Acer have all announced their own versions of virtual reality headsets built to be compatible with Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality platform, but let’s look at what that actually means.

What is mixed reality?

You’re going to get a different answer from everyone you ask, but at its core mixed reality is a term used for any technology that layers digital, or virtual, elements over the real world. Pokemon Go is a good example. By looking through your phone’s camera, the game is able to create the illusion that digital elements, the Pokemon, are really in the space around you. That’s mixed reality.

Pokemon Go

At this point you might be wondering whether that’s any different from ‘augmented reality’ and the simple answer is: no. For the most part, AR is synonymous with MR. There are some experts out there who would disagree, who might define AR as something different entirely, or who might suggest ‘mixed reality’ is a spectrum, with AR and VR at opposite ends. They’re not wrong.

However, companies like Apple and Microsoft use these terms interchangeably, which means you’re going to see them being used to describe the same technologies and products. The academic distinctions are still up in the air, and they might change over time.

What’s special about Windows Mixed Reality?

Windows Mixed Reality is the name for Microsoft’s particular brand of mixed reality. It’s a unified platform like Windows, but for mixed reality headsets.

All Windows Mixed Reality headsets have inside-out tracking, which means the headset can tell which direction you’re looking without having to look for external sensors like the lighthouses you use for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

That means you can use room-scale VR anywhere, not just where you have your sensors set up, and you don’t have to worry about stepping out of range of the sensors. That alone sets these headsets apart from their competition.

Despite the name “mixed reality,” however, these headsets will be compatible with standard virtual reality. In fact, most of the launch applications will focus on virtual reality experiences.

Think of Windows Mixed Reality as you do Windows itself. It’s a platform which Microsoft wants manufacturers — like Samsung, Acer, and Dell — to build products for. In the same way that Dell makes laptops which run Windows, it’s also making mixed reality headsets for Windows Mixed Reality.

Is it different from virtual reality?

Not really.

Think of Windows Mixed Reality as VR, plus a little extra. Microsoft is working to make sure Windows Mixed Reality headsets will be compatible with existing VR experiences and games, particularly those on the SteamVR store, but on top of that you’ll be able to take advantage of ‘mixed reality’ experiences which layer virtual elements on top of the real world.

That’s why all of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets have inside-out tracking. How developers end up using those capabilities will remain to be seen — though the upcoming Halo: Recruit experience is promising. But for now at least, Windows Mixed Reality headsets are providing a reasonably priced and standardized entry point into the whole virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experience, and giving HTC and Oculus some much-needed competition.

Despite what the name may have you think, Windows Mixed Reality isn’t important because it’s pioneering a new type of experience. Instead, it’s refining a range of virtual reality and augmented experiences and bringing them to more affordable price points, with native Windows support.

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