You may well have heard of Mixed Reality headsets, lower cost VR devices that work with Windows 10, and it's likely you'll be hearing much more about them in the months ahead. So how do they compare with the premium headsets and mobile VR devices? Here's everything you need to know.

Windows Mixed Reality is a virtual reality ecosystem being pushed by Microsoft as an extension of Windows 10. The idea is you plug a headset into your Windows 10 machine and you're instantly transported into a VR world, with an easier setup process than the big-name headsets from Oculus or HTC, and potentially at a lower cost depending on the setup you pick.

So why the name? Virtual reality, augmented reality, and other similar technologies are all so new that there's no real consensus on how to use these terms or what exactly they refer to, but "mixed reality" is a phrase that Microsoft's very fond of – in essence it just means the blending of real-world scenes and computer graphics, as with the Microsoft HoloLens.

Windows Mixed Reality covers both VR and AR, though at the moment it's tipping more towards fully digitized virtual worlds, despite the "mixed" moniker. In the future it's likely that this technology from Microsoft will cover immersive VR experiences as well as AR apps like those we've seen from Apple's ARKit.

Mid-range virtual reality

Right now you might be thinking Windows Mixed Reality doesn't sound much different to what's already out there, and to some extent you're right. However, there are some ways that Microsoft is looking to stand out from the current VR/AR/MR crowd.

One way is through the range of supported specs for your desktop or laptop – Mixed Reality devices are still going to work on pretty average hardware, giving more people a chance to make use of them. Generally speaking, they're also intended to be more affordable than the fully featured, premium headsets from Oculus, HTC, and Sony.

As always there's a trade-off – run Windows Mixed Reality on a more basic PC, and you won't get the best graphics or access to the best VR games. As with Windows hardware in general, you'll have a choice of a variety of specs and price points, so you can choose your way into VR accordingly. Microsoft is also introducing a premium "Ultra" level to Windows Mixed Reality, with PC specs and headsets capable of matching the Rift and the Vive for quality.

Movement tracking is supported, but it's handled by cameras integrated into the headsets themselves rather than external scanners or sensors, so you can get up and running more easily. As with everything else involved in Windows Mixed Reality, it's like a half-way compromise between the very best VR headsets and the mobile VR headsets you slot your phone into.

Hardware and software

In terms of the hardware, Microsoft is working with manufacturers like Samsung, Lenovo, Acer, Asus, and HP to bring out Mixed Reality headsets that all fit a certain set of ground rules. These will work much like any other VR or AR headset: You pop the device on your head, and you're off into a digital adventure.

Prices are currently starting in the region of US$299, with associated motion controllers extra, and the specs on resolutions and lenses don't vary too much between the headsets announced so far, including models from Dell and Acer. For the time being, these are all still cabled headsets, so you can't move too far.

On the software side you need to have the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update installed, which has all the Windows Mixed Reality goodness built into it. The OS needs to be paired with at least an Intel Core i5-7200U processor and 8 GB of RAM, though you can get away with Intel HD Graphics 620 or better (if you do have a discrete graphics card, you'll see improvements in graphics quality and frame rates).

If you want the best VR experiences at the best frame rates, you need Windows Mixed Reality Ultra, and the recommended computer specs go up accordingly. You need a discrete graphics card for a start, at least as powerful as the Nvidia GTX 960.

This app will tell you if your Windows 10 computer supports Mixed Reality headsets and Microsoft has a full list of required specs here.

Games and apps from the Windows Store and SteamVR are supported, and while the selection isn't too comprehensive right now, it should steadily get better (Microsoft's own Minecraft is of course ready to go now). As Oculus and HTC have found, getting developer support is crucial in growing an ecosystem.

The Mixed Reality future

At this nascent stage it's still difficult to tell exactly how the new wave of VR software and hardware will play out. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive only launched last year, and have both been given significant price cuts since then. Meanwhile Samsung and Google continue to push mobile VR headsets powered by your smartphone.

If you're wondering how Windows Mixed Reality fits into all this, then "mid-range VR" is probably a good shorthand to stick to, though with the Ultra tier Microsoft and its partners are aiming straight at HTC, Sony, and Oculus. Microsoft will be hoping to tempt in the casual gamers who don't want to spend big on a premium headset but want something better than mobile VR can offer, and the quality of the games and apps are likely to play a big part in whether than happens.

You can do all the usual VR tricks in Windows Mixed Reality, like view 360-degree videos from YouTube, but it's really the ease of setup (with no need to install separate sensors), the low bar for hardware specs, and the ubiquity of Windows 10 that Microsoft is banking on to make this a success. In each area, it wants to lower the bar for entry into VR (or AR or MR) and get more people through the gate.

With the Fall Creators Update for Windows 10 only just rolling out across the world, it's still early days for Windows Mixed Reality and the manufacturers and developers pushing out hardware and software for it. As for what the future holds for the technology, we can only tell you to watch this space.

Product page: Windows Mixed Reality

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