Windows Mixed Reality hands-on review

Microsoft’s Mixed Reality: the first version of Windows you can live in

Tech pundits like yours truly have been opining about VR “going mainstream” for years. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell thinks we’re going to live in The Matrix within our lifetimes. Elon Musk isn’t convinced we’re not already in it. And Editor in Chief, Jeremy Kaplan, just wants to go back to Mars. Yet for all the breathless praise and predictions, VR very much remains a novelty for well-heeled software engineers and obsessive gamers.

Microsoft wants to break VR out of the basement and into the living room with Windows Mixed Reality, an ambitious gambit to build VR into the operating system you’re already using. Microsoft calls it “Mixed Reality” because it will accommodate both VR headsets, and eventually AR headsets like the HoloLens as well.

A free Windows 10 update will deliver everyone the software they need on October 17. To dive in, though, you’ll need one of five Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the latest of which Microsoft just announced on October 3 at an event in San Francisco.

What’s this new environment like? We had a chance to explore the final version before it reaches consumers in two weeks. It’s the most intuitive, entertaining, and polished VR implementation yet.

Welcome to the Cliff House

Every interface is a metaphor. Command lines often mimic the typewriter, desktops look like their namesake, and virtual reality interfaces often look like a comfortable, expensive home. Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality, which places you in a clifftop mansion, follows similar interfaces from Oculus and HTC.

The real-estate aspirations of every Seattle-dwelling Microsoft designer bleed through the so-called Cliff House, a sprawling, minimalist estate with an open floor plan, exposed rock surfaces, a tree-dotted perimeter, and a killer view of Mt. Rainier. You can scope it out from the patio, which joins a deck, theater and living room as the four main spaces you can hop between.

The real-estate aspirations of every Seattle-dwelling Microsoft designer bleed through the so-called Cliff House.

The home is too sprawling to navigate by walking in real space, so you’ll need to use one of the two Vive-like controllers to get around. As Jeremy Kaplan described in his earlier hands-on demo, you “hop” by pushing an analog joystick forward in the direction you want to go, casting a glowing circle on the floor. When you click the trigger, you’ll almost instantly warp there. A number of games already use this trick to avoid the nausea induced by sliding through VR spaces, and Microsoft has wisely decided against reinventing the wheel.

You can turn by looking around or, if you’d like to pull an about-face, swivel by pointing the joystick sideways. It moves in notchy increments to, again, prevent you from spewing your guts over the Cliff House’s pristine marble floors.

All this might sound complicated. Thankfully, Cortana explains the controls in a quick tutorial. The control scheme felt familiar to me in minutes, and by the end of my demo, I was jackrabbiting through the house like it was second nature.

It’s still a desktop

The Cliff House, while visually impressive, is mostly a tool for navigating to the good stuff – apps. There’s no shortage of them. Microsoft claims 20,000 Windows 10 apps will work in virtual reality.

Windows Mixed Reality
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

Traditional, two-dimensional apps appear like giant projections on the walls, which you can leap in front of and interact with. Each pistol-shaped controller projects a beam you can swing around like a mouse cursor. Just click the trigger to make a selection, or hold it down to manipulate objects. You can slide an app around on the wall, for instance, or drag the edges to make it bigger or smaller. All the familiar desktop paradigms still work.

There are some rough edges, however – literally.

There are moments that’ll have you believe you’re sucking thin mountain air at 8,000 feet.

VR web browsing isn’t the best. Current VR headsets can’t display smooth, small text easily, so everything must be made jumbo sized, like your grandpa’s calculator. You can view webpages, but it loads the mobile version of sites like Digital Trends, and magnifies them until they look like posters. Even at that resolution, text has a jaggy, uneven look that gets worse toward the edge of your vision.

Entering text, like web addresses, means pulling down a keyboard the size of a (virtual) piano and punching in every letter with your laser cursor. It’s not as daunting as it sounds, but you wouldn’t want to punch in anything longer than a few words. Microsoft’s VR guru Alex Kipman claims he regularly works in VR and simply dictates to Cortana or touch types with a keyboard, but you’ll need a private office, or a lot of patience, to make it work.

Another dimension

Of course, sticking to 2D apps is like installing Windows and then using the Command interface. You’re here to dive into 3D, right? Microsoft doesn’t disappoint, with an array of 3D experiences from games to 360-degree videos.

I indulged in a “HoloTour” of Machu Picchu that situated me in a glass-floored hot air balloon drifting above the ancient Incan city. This wasn’t just 360-degree video; Microsoft used stereoscopic cameras that give world depth. There are moments that’ll have you believe you’re sucking thin mountain air at 8,000 feet. Don’t cancel your tickets to Peru just yet, but this might be the Space Cadet 3D Pinball of Windows MR — a basic, yet impressive forebear of things to come.

Windows Mixed Reality
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

Microsoft has other tricks, too. A Hologram app lets you populate your virtual Cliff House with everything from lamps to rambunctious chameleons on bicycles, which proceed to pedal around like wind-up toys after you set them loose.

Where’s MS Paint? Missing, currently — but everything on Steam will soon work for Windows MR, so Tilt Brush isn’t out of reach.

That means games, too. Microsoft showed off Superhot, an existing VR hit, alongside Halo: Recruit, an upcoming VR-only entry in the Halo franchise. Swallow your high expectations now, because the demo I saw was merely a carnival-style shooting gallery plastered over with Halo graphics and narration. We’re told the full game will beyond this training exercise, but if initial impressions are any indication, it’s not going to impress fans waiting for Halo 6.

Windows Mixed Reality is the first attempt at building a version of Windows you can live in.

We were more impressed by two new, unique games — Luna, and Sky Worlds. The first is a trippy, calming puzzle game so gorgeous you almost don’t want to solve the simple puzzles, which ask you to move stars into constellation-like formations. Sky Worlds, meanwhile, mimicks classic Warcraft with a 3D game board of medieval warriors clashing in front of you. You can spin it around like a Lazy Susan to get a better look, and pluck cards from your left hand to lay down on the board, where they come to life and go into battle against the marauding horde.

If all this sounds like just a little bit too much work, you can also retreat to the home theater room, where a screen that simulates the size of a 300-inch TV awaits. Like the browser, it won’t be as good as your home TV, but if you don a headset on a flight – and a laptop can definitely power these things – I guarantee you’ll prefer it to watching on a seat-back screen.

A glimpse at the future

We’ve long had 3D demos, games, and apps, but Windows Mixed Reality is the first attempt at a VR environment you can actually live in. When you’re not busy blasting aliens, or exploring ancient ruins, or solving 3D puzzles, you can browse the internet, watch movies, and mess around in a space that puts – I imagine – even Bill Gates’ house to shame. You could conceivably spend a whole day in here. Instead of an isolated VR experience, Windows Mixed Reality is a virtual reality world.

I say virtual reality, not mixed reality, because, frankly, that’s PR spin right now. As we said the last time we saw Windows Mixed Reality, there’s nothing mixed about it. Still, we’re looking at Windows Virtual Reality. Microsoft has clearly settled on “mixed reality” as a conveniently ambiguous word that encompasses what HoloLens does, and what VR headsets do. Someday, perhaps, the hardware for both will look similar – but not yet.

Windows Mixed Reality is the first version of Windows you can live in. Whether you’ll want to live with it is still another matter, and one that may take several months to know – but first impressions, at least, are promising.

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