Thursday morning at Microsoft’s Build conference, the company announced the opening of pre-orders for two new VR dev kits. Developers in the US and Canada can now pre-order the Acer ($299) and HP ($329) Mixed Reality headsets. Delivery of the headsets is scheduled for August 2017. I was able to get hands on with the dev kit version of the Acer headset at Build this week and organized my thoughts into broad categories below.
Acer VR Headset & Minimum PC specs
- * 2x LCD displays, 1440 x 1440
- * 2.89” diagonal display size (x2)
- * Front hinged display
- * 95 degrees horizontal field of view
- * Display refresh rate up to 90 Hz (native)
- * Built-in audio out and microphone support through 3.5mm jack
- * Single cable with HDMI 2.0 (display) and USB 3.0 (data) for connectivity
- * Inside-out tracking
- * 4.0 meter cable
- * Sensors: Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Magnetometer, Proximity
- * Dimensions (L x W x H) 195.8 x 94.8 x 106.59 mm
- * Weight: 350 grams
Minimum PC Specs for Developers
Minimum PC Specs for Consumers
Design & Comfort
The Acer headset is incredibly light at 350 grams, or just over 3/4 of a pound; since I’m used to bigger PC headsets like the Rift and Vive, it gave me an odd sensation to feel immersed in VR with such little weight on my head. The headset features a single rigid ‘Halo style’ head strap that the display hangs off of in the front. One of the coolest features of this headset is its ability to flip up out of the way of your eyes at the point where it connects to the head strap. If you turn the display all the way up away from your face it clicks into place at forehead level, giving you the ability to check in with the real world. This allows you to easily take extended breaks from VR while working at your desk or during a gaming session when you might want to quickly grab a drink or a snack.
I only wore the headset for around 5 to 10 mins at a time across a few different demos at the Build conference so it’s tough to say what the long-term comfort might be like. However, the padding on the front of the headset strap seemed comfortable enough and didn’t bother me during my time with the headset on. There was one demo where the head strap started to make the back of my head a bit sore but this might have been caused by me tightening down the strap too much or seating it too low on the back of my head. Tightening and releasing the strap was a little unintuitive for me at first but I quickly got use to it and found it easy enough by my second or third demo. It operates essentially like a snowboard binding coupled with a buckle that feeds the strap in and out of a locking mechanism.
I appreciate Acer going with a bright colorful design. Looking around my office at the moment almost every electronic device in here is black. My keyboard, mouse, monitor, speakers, Rift, Vive, printer, PC tower. Adding some color to my environment is a plus for this headset in my opinion. At the moment it looks like the dev kits are only available for pre-order in blue, but Acer has also shown images of the headset in a bright red version in the past. I wonder if they ended up pulling the red version due to people having flashbacks to the look of the old View-Master, or if you we’re really lucky, Virtual Boy.
The bright blue color, light weight, and cheap plastic feel of some of the headset’s materials all make the Acer feel a bit like a toy. But for $300 I’m willing to live with some loss in materials quality. I don’t feel great about making any sweeping judgements on the Acer’s comfort given I didn’t spend any extended periods in the headset. It could be that over longer periods their cheaper strap design could cause comfort issues. However for the few times I had the headset on I was able to find a good comfortable fit.
Visual & Audio Quality
The Acer VR headset packs a 1440 x 1440 LCD display per-eye, with a refresh rate of 90Hz. I didn’t notice any screen door effect and text looked very legible. The downside of the Acer’s visuals are its field of view and lens quality. It uses fresnel lenses, and according to its official specs it has a 95 degrees horizontal field of view.
The Acer’s lenses just can’t compare with the more expensive headsets. They seemed to suffer from a bit more distortion around the edges, although if the headset is worn precisely in your ‘sweet spot’ you might not notice this. We don’t have direct measurements for comparison yet, but it felt to me like the Acer had a bit narrower FoV than either the Rift or the Vive. Some of that may have been due to the lower quality lenses. Additionally I did have one friend at the conference complain that the LCD display in the Acer felt worse to him than the OLED displays in the Rift and Vive. I’ll need more time in the headset to get a good feel for the quality of each.
As far as audio goes there were two big things I noticed. No built-in mic and no built-in headphones. None of the demos I tried involved voice communication, but if they had I would have needed a mic attached to a pair of headphones since the Acer audio jack handles both the audio and microphone support. Not having built-in headphones or a mic is a bummer as someone who spends a lot of time in social VR settings, but it’s an understandable move here; allow users to provide their own headphones and mic and keep the price down as much as possible.
One of the exhibitors was nice enough to let me futz around with the audio port, plugging and unplugging their set of headphones. I wanted to test this because the port seems somewhat inconveniently located above the left eye in between the faceplate and the Acer’s exterior blue shield. If you have large hands you might find some difficulty plugging in your pair of headphones in this cramped space as I did.
Overall I found the visual and audio experience of the Acer headset to be a little lower quality than the other major desktop VR systems. The resolution looked great, the field of view was a bit lower than that of the Rift or Vive, and the lenses were certainly of poorer quality than the higher end headsets. But for $300, delivering a VR experience that really isn’t that much worse than a higher end headset is really impressive.
A major difference between the forthcoming Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets and the first generation of consumer PC headsets is that the Acer headset and others use inside-out tracking, which means it doesn’t rely on external beacons. That enhances the ease of setup (just plug in the headset and go!) and reduces the cost. The reason that some headsets use the other kind of tracking (outside-in), however, is because it’s very robust and high performance. To date, HoloLens is one of a small number of devices that has demonstrated good inside-out tracking, and fortunately for the Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets, Microsoft is supposedly handing over the HoloLens tech.
I found the Acer’s tracking to be quite solid in all of my demos. I did experience the occasional tiny jitter in the headset’s tracking, but nothing major. Our understanding is that the outward facing cameras on the front of the headset map your environment in much the same way as HoloLens. Using computer-vision, the cameras are able to build a model of your environment and then use that to determine where you are in that space as you move around. It’s easy to take for granted but being able to essentially plug and play with the Acer headset without finding a place for and setting up a number of external sensors is really one of the biggest values here. Given the difficulty of doing that mapping live and maintaining tracking on an expo floor where the people and objects are moving around as much as they were, I was really impressed.
One of the exhibitors who had been working with the headset for about a week mentioned that you can run the Acer VR headset in either a standing mode or a mode similar to the Vive’s chaperone boundaries. By starting the setup process and then moving the headset around your playspace you’re able to quickly create a bounding box for yourself to keep you within a certain physical area to ensure you don’t bump into things around you. I only did one or two demos where I saw this bounding box. It appeared when you approached, displayed a wall of blue dots to you, and then faded away as you stepped back into the center of your space.
Content & Windows Holographic
Since Microsoft is confusingly lumping a bunch of different things under the “Mixed Reality” term, we’re using ‘Windows Holographic’ to refer to the AR/VR portion of the Windows operating system. Windows Holographic creates an immersive virtual environment where users can interact with 2D Windows apps in the 3D virtual space, and those apps can be programmed to ‘pop out’ into the virtual space with their own 3D content, or could perhaps transport you to an entirely different virtual space when you launch a VR app.
Microsoft is working with a number of prominent PC makers to create Windows Holographic compatible headsets, like this one from Acer. However, it seems right now such headsets will rely entirely on the Windows ecosystem and won’t have an official way to play games from Oculus or SteamVR, where the majority of high-end VR entertainment content is currently available.
One demonstration of Windows Holographic in action is a demo they’re calling Cliff House. As far as I can tell, the Cliff House is meant to be a home base for you to customize with different Windows apps and content. A kind of starting-off point and place to return to between experiences, similar to Oculus Home or the SteamVR compositor. The house itself looks similar to the Bigscreen apartment environment if it were daytime out and set amongst nature. For a tour of the house you can check out this video.
The house felt like a pretty good starting point for this sort of use-case but it can still be improved in a few ways. For one I don’t remember anything moving inside the house. It felt static and dead. I also don’t remember any impressive ambient sound effects or music which might have helped to set a nice mood and establish the space. Hearing the sound of the waves breaking against the shore below the house would have done a lot to make the environment feel more alive.
I spent a few minutes teleporting around the house checking out some of the surrealist views and impossible architecture of the space, then opened up a media browser and watched a video on the Great Wall of China before my demo ended.
Another way to improve the Cliff House would be to open it up a bit more so that teleporting between rooms was easier and required less navigation. Overall I thought it was cool to have a home space that you can actually move about in, placing windows, media, and apps wherever you like, which I would desperately like to do in Oculus Home. But the house itself is still a fixer upper at this point, which is to be expected since the entire Microsoft Mixed Reality platform is currently under construction.
In addition to Windows Holographic, I saw a number of standalone demos (ie: individual VR applications), though most of the content & demos that were being shown on the headset are not worth taking the time to describe. I got the sense that almost every official demo made by Microsoft will be thrown away or not progressed much beyond remaining a traveling conference demo. I’d really liked to have seen some better content—something that highlighted the benefits of this new headset—but it just wasn’t there.
Most of the official demo stations were either seated or in such a compact space that the headsets were in standing-only mode. It’s a shame Microsoft couldn’t put together some demos that would have allowed users to move around more and really get a sense for the “world scale” tracking. From the demos I received it felt more like chair-scale tracking or rug-scale tracking since I was told to stand in the middle of a 2 x 3 ft matt at one station and not step off it. I’m probably being too harsh given the early nature of both the headsets and the entire Microsoft Mixed Reality platform, but it would have been nice to have seen some more engaging content; something that got the blood pumping, had some basic engaging gameplay, or hit me on an emotional level.
One Acer demo that stood out and actually allowed me to move around to test the tracking capabilities of the headset, was a volumetric music video experience created by Viacom NEXT. The experience features recording artist Max Frost and was made in partnership with Microsoft using their Holocapture system.
The quality of the human representation that resulted from the capture process was much better than anything I had seen previously. I’ve seen a few companies try to stitch stuff like this together in the past using multiple Kinect sensors and the like, but the quality here was on another level. Aesthetically the experience reminded me of inhabiting a music video based on the 1996 film Multiplicity along with some SpongeBob influences due to the underwater and beach locations. The Acer VR headset provided comfortable tracking as I moved around and tested the bounds of the playspace.
After my demo I watched someone else go through the experience and noted two things: 1) the headset seems to accommodate those wearing glasses well, both in this instance and in others that I saw, 2) the cable looks to be about 12 or 13 ft in length, which was not enough in this instance when the gentleman walked back to the edge of the playspace and almost pulled the demo computer off its perch. To compare, the Vive cable is approximately 19 ft in length including the breakout box to the PC, and the Rift cable is approximately 13 ft long.
Another exhibitor demo I was impressed with was Pixvana’s VR video technology running on the Acer headset. The high resolution panel in the Acer really lent itself well to the HQ 360 video experience. I’m unsure what resolution the Seattle Sounders game day experience I watched was playing back at, but Pixvana says they can stream video content up to 12k resolution. They recently announced a partnership with Valve that has their technology working at the core of the Steam 360 video player. Due to the Acer headset’s higher resolution and huge portability benefits, it could become a favorite of the VR video community for playback on location, demos, and long editing sessions made more tolerable by the headsets ‘flip up’ ability.
What Devs Think
In my interactions with developers at the conference the response to the Windows Mixed Reality VR headsets seemed largely positive. Most are enthusiastic about not needing to setup any additional outside tracking systems for the headset and are also really happy about the price point. The belief is that if Microsoft can ship a plug & play headset at a ~$300 price point, we’ll be seeing a lot more people entering the VR marketplace this year. I also heard a few people discussing the benefits of the Acer’s minimal cabling. The headset only has one relatively slim wire coming out of it that runs along the right side of the headstrap and then splits into one HDMI and one USB port right before it gets to the PC.
It’s a compelling idea that I might be able to throw an Acer headset in my backpack along with a laptop and head off to work, or to be able to take it easily over to a friend’s house without a lengthy setup. A lot of people at the conference were also discussing the VR controllers that Microsoft just announced for these headsets. It’s currently unknown when the Acer VR headset + controller bundle ($400) will become available beyond “later this year.” At the conference, demos requiring locomotion beyond physical bounds were using an Xbox controller and teleportation.
The biggest question marks for the Acer headset were mostly around the field of view for the controller tracking, shipping & release dates, and how IPD adjustments are made to the headset.
HoloLens is able to make some adjustments for IPD in-software, so one would assume there’s a similar process for the Acer headset, though if you can’t move the lenses of the Acer headset, you can’t have a truly correct IPD.
Another question that came up was around if the Microsoft VR controllers would be available outside of a bundle purchase. I was able to confirm that they would be sold independently as well, although no word on a date yet for when.
There was also a lot of talk and excitement about how the Windows Mixed Reality headsets will fit into the launch of Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox ‘Project Scorpio’ console, which is slated to arrive at exactly the same time as the consumer MR headsets: ‘holiday 2017’.
Some questions I had coming out of the conference that have since been answered were around the ability for the controllers to track fully outside of the headset’s forward-facing cameras, as well as questions regarding if they would work across all of the Microsoft partner-headsets, including HoloLens.
I was told that the controllers do indeed use the headset’s forward facing cameras for their primary tracking method but that they also have other sensors, including an IMU, and employ inverse kinematics. If the controllers move outside of the headset’s camera tracking area they will reportedly start to lose confidence in the controller’s exact positions, but can still maintain some degree of confidence using the other sensors and IK methods.
In response to my second question, about whether or not they would work with HoloLens, I was told that the controllers are “platform compatible controllers,” and that this applies across all OEMs. So if you buy one pair of the controllers they should work on any Windows Mixed Reality headset. However somewhat paradoxically I was also told that the controllers are not compatible with HoloLens at this time. It’s possible that this response merely indicates that HoloLens support is not ready currently but is planned for the future since HoloLens is a major part of the Windows Mixed Reality platform. We’ll have to wait and see.
For $300 the quality of the Acer VR headset’s overall user experience holds its own against much more expensive systems, with the obvious caveat of not yet having tracked input or controllers. In my mind the question should be: does this headset provide a good experience for this price or not? I think it does. Comparing this headset directly to something significantly more expensive like the Rift or the Vive is just unfair. Sure it’s going to have its downsides and make sacrifices on quality, but to provide an entry-level PC VR experience at this price point, at the quality I saw, seems like a victory for everyone cheering for a future with more VR in it. I’m excited to see how the final consumer version of the Acer and other Microsoft partner headsets turns out, and whether or not they’ll have the content to back them up.