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The innovative tracking system has a few hiccups, but should be fine for most users and most experiences. With imminent SteamVR support, the Dell Visor is a viable alternative to other high end sets, though the Oculus Rift still represents best value for money.
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 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.
Note: This review was updated as we gained access to the SteamVR preview and had a chance to play some Rec Room to really test the system out. You’ll find the updated text below in the SteamVR section, or you can view our update video below.
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. 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.
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, 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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. In the unfamiliar Mixed Reality beach house environment, it was difficult to tell if the resolution bump made much of a difference, but it’s more noticeable now that we can try in SteamVR. When looking at further distances, it’s markedly better, but not so much that I would say ditch your Vive or Oculus and go “upgrade” to this, or that you would be getting any tactical advantage.
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.
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 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.
It’s not perfect, and the tracking can be easily broken if you know how, but for most interactions we found it was good enough.
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.
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!
Having tried in a multiplayer gaming environment, I can confirm that the controller tracking is good enough to be competitive. This will depend on the game though: Rec Room uses magnetized pick-up system, so you don’t actually need to fully lean over or crouch down to pick something up, just have your hand be within a set bubble around the item.
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.
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.
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, 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!
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.
SteamVR Works! [Updated]
When we initially reviewed this device, the selection of content available was extremely limited. The Windows store contained a disappointing Halo shooting gallery, and a few VR titles that have been out for a year or so on other platforms. Microsoft had promised SteamVR support would be coming, and it now looks like the public preview of that will be happening on November 15th. We gained early access to the preview, and are pleased to report that the experiences we tried worked well.
There were a few bugs in our preview – the controller models were displaying as Vive wands, and the angle was wrong – but these should both be fixable with a software update. Unfortunately, for a game like Rec Room where the trackpad is used extensively for snap-turning, it highlighted how unresponsive that aspect of the Dell Visor controllers are. There should be workaround for this eventually, like using the thumbstick to turn instead.
We were also promised native Minecraft support. 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.
Should You Buy a Dell Visor?
From a hardware perspective, the inside out tracking eliminates the need for external cameras and is ludicrously easy to set up, and while not perfect, this feels like the ultimate future of VR. The headset itself gets great positional tracking, but the controllers can feel glitchy. It’s good enough for basic UI interactions and most games where your hands sit out in front, but specific types of games may present issues. 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.
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. Our experience in competitive multiplayer confirmed that the trackpads were quite unresponsive. Game developers should be able to work around these limitations though with configuration options.
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 these functions, better.
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.
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?
However, with SteamVR support, the Windows Mixed Reality environment can be completely ignored. If you just want to play your Steam games, and use SteamVR, you can.
Would I recommend the Dell Visor instead of the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? That’s tricky. It’s a viable alternative now, absolutely. For easy of setup, the Dell Visor wins by a mile. The Oculus Rift is fiddly and requires external tracking cameras, but the controllers are superior, and you get a ton of fantastic games out of the box – and it remains the best value. The Vive is the most expensive, but has superior tracking, and is the most open system with wireless upgrades and new controllers coming soon.