Hands-on with Samsung’s new VR headset and Microsoft Mixed Reality.
I’ve never been a huge fan of VR technologies. For me, they have always been a little like the motion simulator attactions at Disney parks. You can shake the floor and bring in all the bells and whistles, but I’m fully aware that I’m not going anywhere.
Over the past few years I’ve tested beta versions of VR headsets, which didn’t do much to change my opinion. But then I tried the HTC Vive, and all of the lag, jittering, and fogginess I associated with VR had disappeared and been replaced by a truly seamless experience. It just worked, without much to complain about – except the supercharged computer requirement, the wall-mounted cameras, and the rat’s nest of cables needed to bring it to life.
In setting up my home office, I was intrigued by the latest batch of headsets, compatible with Microsoft’s new Mixed Reality platform, and manufactured by Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Samsung. These headsets promised a simpler, more compact setup, along with much lower hardware requirements.
I decided to test out the Samsung HMD Odyssey, which had the best initial reviews and offers the highest quality display yet seen in consumer VR. Here are my first impressions….
The headset itself is not quite as streamlined as the latest Oculus and Vive issues, but it is comfortable. I was able to wear the unit for upwards of 30 minutes without experiencing any discomfort, though I couldn’t quite eliminate the sliver of light leaking through the base of the unit, and I wasn’t sure how well the headset would accommodate users with glasses.
The headset ships with two battery-powered handheld controllers, each with joystick, touchpad, and trigger. These are not quite as comfortable, but outside of intense gaming, I don’t think this would be a problem. A ring of pulsing LED lights around each controller makes them feel a little more alive, and high-tech, than others I’ve tried.
Also in the box: nothing. The only cable in the entire box is attached to the headset, and splits off after about a dozen feet into standard USB 3.0 and HDMI junctions.
I decided to take a chance and plugged the device into my laptop. It’s a solid work computer, relatively souped up, but as the drivers initialized I was warned that its graphics card did not meet the base requirement. I tried it anyway. After pairing the handheld controllers to my laptop via Bluetooth, and downloading an update to Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Portal (included with the Windows 10 Fall update), I was up and running….
My first impressions: fantastic. The OLED display, the highest-resolution available in consumer VR, looked great, with virtually no visible pixelization. The experience was so good that only after two weeks of use did I realize that the lenses were still covered in protective plastic. Once I removed these, the display was even crisper. The head tracking felt perfectly smooth, with no discernible lag. By default, the hand controllers appear within the 3D environment, making it easy to find them and identify their buttons. Tracking of the controllers wasn’t quite as smooth, but the lag wasn’t distracting during normal operation.
The VR Desktop
When you start up the headset, you find yourself in Cliff House. This is a Microsoft creation, a minimal, modernist house built into a stylized Pacific Northwest cliffside. You can walk around on foot (as far as the cable will permit) or using the controller to jump from place to place, from the yard with its mountain vistas, to the roof’s edges, with a precipitous view down to the rocky shore below.
Throughout the house are a series of content rectangles set against the walls, akin to desktop windows in 3D space. These are your core VR applications; different rooms of the house feature a VR theater, a web browser, and inevitably, the Microsoft Store.
The house is elegant and simple, a bit nicer and less cheesy than what I’d expected – it’s not quite Clippy. But it’s about as exciting as it sounds. The flat walls and distant horizons don’t really show off the the headset’s capabilities. I would have loved a more adventurous environment for what is essentially my VR desktop, but I understand Microsoft’s desire to make a safe, simple portal. Still, they could have thrown in something dumb and fun – the VR equivalent of Solitaire.
My quest for excitement led me to the Microsoft Store. I checked out a few free demos. The Museum of Type (somebody’s university project) is a nice idea, but as a series of flat planes in 3D space it’s even less dimensional than Cliff House. I tried watching some immersive movies; 360-degree short films promoting Lego Batman and Force One were almost unwatchably blurry on my headset. A Cirque du Soleil teaser, with creepy clowns surrounding me, had good detail, but kept kept freezing as the video stream paused to buffer.
I had better luck with Form, an immersive puzzle game taking place in an abstract, Myst-like universe. Here I was able to use the controllers as hands, to grab and manipulate virtual objects. It looked and felt great, and the interaction was remarkably intuitive.
I didn’t buy the unit to play games, I bought it to make stuff. So my next step was to see how complicated that process would be. As with most other VR platforms, Microsoft Mixed Reality supports the use of Unity as a development platform. The developer’s website linked me to a development build of Unity that supported MR, as well as a toolkit of code and sample projects.
I was able to open one of the sample files, enter Unity’s ‘Play’ mode, and see it running immediately on the headset. To publish a stand-alone app, I would need to publish the project from Unity, then switch over to Visual Studio for final compilation.
I brought in a 3D model I’d recently built for a concept proposal, a hands-on exhibit for a corporate visitor center. The model is all flat colors and simple geometries, so I thought it would be an easy fit. First I tried importing it into one of the sample scenes… which repeatedly caused Unity to freeze. I was able to start a clean project and import the file, but encountered hiccups along the way. I could view it through the headset, but couldn’t get the controllers to work.
Eventually, after a few web searches, I learned that the toolkit had been updated, and was intended for a newer version of Unity. After downloading these, I finally had some success, and I was able to virtually explore my own design.
Which was pretty cool. The quality was not as good as the Cliff House demo – I saw a lot of jagged edges in the headset – but it was easy and straightforward. The stereoscopic view gave me a strong sense of how spacious or crowded each area of the exhibit felt, something that has been difficult for me to intuit from traditional computer-aided design, and I was able to consider the design from new perspectives – literally.
When the publishing workflow becomes more straightforward, I think this will be a great visualization tool, not only for the design of exhibits, but for presentation as well, and the laptop-friendly, single cable device makes this a flexible, portable option.
Mixed Reality, Mixed Feelings
We need to talk about Microsoft’s strategy in all this. The company has coined the phrase Mixed Reality to refer to its world of AR and VR devices, including its own HoloLens, as well as this new wave of third-party headsets.
The bad news is that these devices are VR headsets with no AR capability whatsoever. They have cameras, yes, but those cameras only exist to map out their environment and track motion. I know I’m not the only one who found this terminology confusing. For developers, the language is clarified a bit to specify “Immersive Mixed Reality,” but despite Microsoft’s rebranding efforts, this is VR, plain and simple.
There is good news, though, and it’s very good news. The built-in Windows support for VR makes things incredibly simple and streamlined, from the single-cable headsets to the Xbox-compatible controllers to the root OS support. By broadening compatibility to include non-gaming computers, and creating a flexible VR desktop , Microsoft has potentially expanded the reach of this technology to both consumer and business users.
I’m excited to do more with the headset – playing high end games through the Steam VR library, using it as a 3D design visualization tool, and building my own interactive, immersive experiences. It’s renewed my excitement about working with VR, and for that, I’d call it a tremendous success.