Windows Mixed Reality – a look at the Lenovo Explorer headset

I’ve always thought augmented reality (AR) was the future.  I’ve mentioned it before on social media, I’ve said it on a podcast I used to co-host – AR is cooler and more important than VR.

However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see value in virtual reality.  In fact, I’ve wanted an HTC Vive from the moment I heard about them, but I refused to pay the $799 price tag.  Since then, I’ve maintained a half-watchful eye on the market, but I admit, I’ve been a bit curious every time I passed by the Microsoft Store and saw customers playing with the VR demo.  The wires always turned me off, and I told myself “I’ll get one when they’re way cheaper or when they’re wireless.”

Then, a couple weeks ago. SwiftOnSecurity tweeted this:

Needless to say, I was intrigued.  Oculus Rift had come down to $399 and the HTC Vive to $499, but I still didn’t want to make that level of investment on a wired headset.  $199, though?  Take my money!

And indeed, they did, because I now have a Lenovo Explorer VR headset.  Well, I guess it’s actually a “Windows Mixed Reality headset,” but I’m a little unclear why it’s branded as that, considering it and other Mixed Reality headsets are all VR rather than AR, the latter of which is what the term “Mixed Reality” implies.  I suppose it could be Microsoft’s way of hyping “holograms” and all of the tech they’ve prepared for the Hololens without actually having a consumer-ready version of that product available for purchase.  If that is the case, it was wasted on me, because I’ve been ready for the Hololens long before I got this VR hardware.

Skyloft environment in Windows MR. Image courtesy of Microsoft

Windows Mixed Reality Headsets are compatible with Mixed Reality games in the Microsoft store, as well as Oculus and Vive games using Steam VR (you just have to download the Windows Mixed Reality program in Steam to get it to work).  Outside of gaming, Microsoft lets you interact with Universal Windows Apps inside of your own virtual reality house.  It’s honestly pretty cool, despite how incredibly useless it is.  But again, the novelty is still quite incredible.  It was the first thing I saw in VR, and my first reaction – and I imagine most people’s is as well – was just “whoa.”

Virtual reality has a lot of moments like that, not just when you first put on the headset.  The first time I “telepathically” controlled something, I got such a huge grin on my face.  The first time I shot a gun in VR, I couldn’t believe how incredible the tracking was.  The greatest thing about this headset, or any other one, is that once you try VR, the rest of the headset will sell itself to you.

There’s a lot of weird stuff with Windows MR, and I’m sure there are bits that may or may not apply to other VR headsets, but look, I’m just going to say this plainly and simply: virtual reality is incredible.  You’re going to keep reading this article and think, “wow, there’s a lot of weird stipulations and issues.  Is this even worth it?”  So just imagine it this way – after every negative thing or issue I mention in the rest of this article, imagine the sentence is followed with, “but VR is awesome, so you won’t care.”

I know, I know, that sounds like a wild assertion, but consider this: if you lived in an alternative universe where all smartphones had a one hour screen-on-time battery, took blurry pictures, and crashed about every 30 minutes, but they still gave you the whole app ecosystem and the ability to have the Internet anywhere, you’d probably still want a smartphone, right?  Having a communication tool like a smartphone in your pocket is incredible.  VR is the same, though not quite as life-changing.

So, that said, let’s dive a little deeper.

The hardware of the Lenovo Explorer has one major drawback, but it only affects some people.  There is no hardware adjustment for pupillary distance, so if you’ve got wideset eyes, you’re out of luck.  This headset will always be blurry for you in at least one eye, so you should definitely look into one with a hardware adjustable IPD.  This was not an issue for me, so no worries there.  It also doesn’t have a mic or speakers built in like many competing headsets do, but it’s got a headphone jack.

They only other negative thing I can say about the hardware is that the Lenovo Explorer’s (much less decently-priced) competitor, the Samsung Odyssey, has a slightly higher resolution.  As far as I know, most Windows MR headsets are 1440×1440 per eye, but the Samsung device is 1440×1600.  That’s not to say that the resolution on the Explorer is bad, but even having never used another VR headset, it’s clear that the resolution could be better (the lower resolution units create what people call the “screen door effect”).  I imagine this would only take away from the experience for you if you were used to using a headset with a much higher pixel density, but I don’t think such a device exists yet.  In the meantime, it’s such an immersive experience that I really stop noticing after a bit anyway.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft has a Mixed Reality PC Check app that you can download to make sure your computer meets the minimum requirements, but I’d also note that a lot of people, despite passing the check, have issues with built-in Bluetooth adapters and end up needing to buy a Bluetooth 4.0 dongle (I got this one for a whopping $13, it works great).  The controllers eat batteries pretty quickly, so you’ll definitely want to buy rechargeable AA‘s and a charger.  Mixed Reality also requires Windows 10 with at least the Fall Creator’s Update installed, but the April 2018 update is highly recommended.

The other downside as far as hardware requirements go is that they’re…well, steep.  I built my gaming desktop three years ago using mostly next-to-best components, and my GTX 970 is literally the minimum requirement for most VR games.  I can’t play Fallout 4 VR or some of the other big name games that were ported over to VR, but I’m actually not super upset about that…yet.

Oh, and speaking of Fallout 4, even if you own it, you have to buy the whole game again to get the VR version, and this is true for most VR games I’ve found.  I understand that a lot of additional work goes into porting these games, but I own Fallout 4 and a season pass, and I feel a little cheated that I have to shell out $60 if I ever upgrade my computer and want to play it in VR.  I’d be fine giving them an extra $15, but come on, I’ve given you ~$75 already.

The software component is actually the biggest downside of Windows MR and the Lenovo Explorer so far.  It’s completely worth the hassle, but it is a hassle at times.  Part of it is that this is all new, and while it’s getting better, there are bugs, and the other part is the learning curve that comes with a new technology.  Some people have issues with the controllers connecting, some people have issues with SteamVR crashing, some people have issues with the boundary being lost – all of which are solvable, but frustrating things that I experienced.

Image courtesy of Microsoft

Because most people seem to need to buy adapters, you can’t forget to disable your built in adapter or it will stop your new adapter from working properly.  Sometimes SteamVR just crashes and you have to restart SteamVR, Steam, the MR Portal app, or your whole computer.  Oh, and the boundary?  That’s the thing that you trace in reality to tell you in VR where you can move in your room without bumping into stuff.  It’s really neat, but it requires a well-lit room and a floor with a distinguishable pattern, because besides the built in accelerators and whatnot, it also uses the front-facing cameras to determine your location.

It took me about 20 minutes of wracking my brains and googling to figure out why I was getting the “boundary lost” message (I had to turn on the lights), and though it seems obvious in hindsight, it is such a typical Microsoft error message, lacking the most basic instructions to fix it.  I’m sure it’s in the manual, but seriously, who gets a VR headset and sits down for an hour to read a boring book about it?

Within VR environments the biggest issue is locomotion.  It’s something that has yet to be solved in a great way that doesn’t also cause a large amount of users to get motion sickness, so as a result, most games use some kind of teleportation mechanic.  This is a very non-immersive solution, which sucks, but the other options are 1) make people sick or 2) don’t make games that require that kind of movement.

Option 1 has resulted in games like Pavlov VR, and option 2 has resulted in lots of “wave shooters” and games like Beat Saber.  If you’re unfamiliar, Pavlov VR is an online FPS that some Steam reviews call “Counterstrike for VR,” and it employs a locomotion technique where you basically just put you finger on the left touchpad to move around.  I tried it, and while at times it’s a bit disorienting, it didn’t make me sick, and I actually sort of liked it (I returned the game though, as I was stupidly hoping for more offline content, of which the game has almost none).

Superhot VR gameplay

Wave Shooters are games like Superhot VR and Raw Data, where you stand in one spot and shoot enemies as they approach you.  You can move around within the space you’re standing, but to, say, travel down a hall, you either teleport there, or your character is “on rails” and moves there automatically when you’re done with the current area.

Beat Saber is a rhythm game that takes advantage of limited physical movement, so while you don’t have to travel down a hall or anything, you do occasionally have to dodge or duck under obstacles that approach you.  This type of game works very well in VR, as do wave shooters, and while Pavlov VR was novel, I feel like maybe people are only playing it because it’s a VR shooter game, not because it’s necessarily a great game in general.  On the other hand, Beat Saber and Superhot VR aren’t good games with VR attached somehow – they’re good because they’re VR games.  That is to say, the best games I’ve played in VR so far are the ones that do things that you can only do with VR rather than ones that are traditional-style games adapted to VR.

Anyway, it’s easy to overlook the issues with VR when you put on the headset.  Even if it crashes one out of 10 times, or you have to unplug your cables and plug them back in 20% of the time, when it works, you just forget all of that.  I honestly can’t remember the last time a video game has wowed me as much as Superhot VR did.  Sure, I loved the last few video games I played (all Fire Emblem games), but it was a familiar, predictable experience.  Yes, I am admitting there is a lot of novelty with VR, which is one of the things I hate about Nintendo’s hardware every time they release it.  The Wii controllers were fun until they weren’t new anymore, then they became a detriment (in my opinion, at least).

Beat Saber gameplay. Animation courtesy of Road to VR.

The Wii succeeded in making games feel more immersive, but it only brought a part of that equation.  Sales were great, but anecdotally I believe that once the newness wore off, a lot of people used Gamecube controllers for pretty much anything besides Wii Sports.  In fact, if you look at the going price of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on eBay right now, the Gamecube version is going for about twice as much of the Wii version, the latter of which forced you to use the Wii controller.  Of course, correlation does not imply causation, blah blah, but the Wii version of the game is technically more modern and displays in 16:9, whereas the Gamecube version only does 4:3.  I don’t know why else the Gamecube version would be more popular other than the controller.

At the very least, I think this shows that for certain types of games, people don’t want gimmicks – they just want great gameplay.  This leads to a pretty obvious question: is VR just a gimmick?

I think it’s a fair question to ask, considering one of the reasons PC gamers prefer PC gaming is because a keyboard and mouse gives you much greater control over a game than an Xbox controller, and that is something that VR takes away.  While you can technically play some VR games with a controller on your PC, the experience is greatly diminished by not using the motion controllers.

If you ask me, a person who is as fallible as any other, I’d say that the immersive nature of VR sets it apart from a device like the Wii, whose gimmick was merely a controller.  You could also say that multitouch displays were a gimmick when the iPhone came out, because at the time, “real work was done on devices with keyboards.”  Clearly, touchscreens were no gimmick, and I think VR falls somewhere closer to touchscreens than the Wii remotes.  Windows Mixed Reality applications are very much a gimmick, because there’s very little practical application for them, but VR gaming is the exact opposite of that.

VR is one of those things that you can’t do justice by talking about, seeing pictures, or even seeing video.  It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand.  If you have the resources, I’d encourage you to try it out, and let me know what you think.


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