Posey's Tips & Tricks

First Impressions of Microsoft Mixed Reality

From Brien's perspective (floating in outer space high above Mars), Microsoft's latest efforts at melding virtual reality and augmented reality are a vast improvement over the HoloLens.

I want to discuss something that I had originally planned to cover last November: Microsoft's Mixed Reality Portal.

For those who might not be familiar with Microsoft's Mixed Reality Portal, it is a part of the Windows 10 operating system that was introduced in the Fall Creators Update, and is intended for use with a mixed-reality headset. Just prior to my holiday break, I managed to get my hands on a Samsung Odyssey mixed-reality headset and a pair of the mixed-reality hand controllers.

I have to admit that I did not initially know what to expect from the mixed-reality experience. I knew going in that mixed reality was supposed to be a cross between augmented reality and virtual reality. I had some prior experience with virtual reality, but those experiences weren't very good. For example, I tried out virtual reality in the '90s, but the virtual world consisted of completely unconvincing wireframe graphics.

I gave virtual reality another try about seven or eight years ago with an off-the-shelf virtual-reality headset. The experience was a lot better than the one that I had before, but it still left a lot to be desired. This particular headset contained two screens, each of which had a display resolution of 640x480. The headset's graphics and 3-D effect were quite good, but the headset didn't really deliver an immersive experience. The best way that I can describe it is that viewing the two tiny screens was like looking at a computer monitor through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. In other words, the image appeared tiny and distant. It was fine for some applications, but was completely impractical for anything that required reading.

So what about the Microsoft mixed-reality headset? I am happy to say that the experience was far better than I expected. Admittedly, I am using the Samsung headset, which has a higher pixel count than the other mixed-reality headsets, but I was blown away by how good the mixed-reality experience really was. The color was good, the head tracking seemed to work well, and the infamous screen-door effect was minimal. What really impressed me, though, was the sense of immersion.

One of the first applications that I tried out upon receiving my headset was Hello Mars. When you first launch this application, you are visually placed in orbit high above Mars, watching as a massive spacecraft slowly flies by. As I watched this sequence, the scale felt completely real. As I looked up at the spacecraft's solar arrays, my mind was convinced that they were at least 80 feet tall. Looking toward the ground also provided the convincing illusion that I was looking across hundreds of miles of Martian terrain. I was just mesmerized by the fact that a couple of LED screens could so convincingly make the spacecraft look absolutely huge.

The Hello Mars application also includes a showroom option that allows you to take a look around the inside of the spacecraft. The headset's 110-degree field of view was so good, that it felt as though you are actually inside the spacecraft. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I got caught up in the illusion to the point that I caught myself trying to check my suit pressure on more than one occasion (I have spent the last several years training to go to space).

Needless to say, I have had a lot of fun with Hello Mars and with several other mixed-reality applications from the Windows Store, but there is something else that I have yet to mention. Remember at the beginning of this post when I said that my initial impression was that Microsoft mixed reality was supposed to be a cross between virtual reality and augmented reality? Well, even though most of the other blog posts that I have read about Microsoft mixed reality essentially say that there is no difference between mixed reality and virtual reality, there is one key distinction: Microsoft has brought a lot of the HoloLens functionality into the Mixed Reality Portal. In fact, many of HoloLens' native holograms also exist by default in the Mixed Reality Portal. Furthermore, some of the Windows Store applications that were designed for HoloLens also work in mixed-reality environments, as shown in Figure 1.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1: This app works with mixed reality headsets and HoloLens.

The mixed-reality environment is a decent alternative to HoloLens. Unlike HoloLens, however, the mixed-reality headsets do not overlay holograms over the real world. At the same time, the mixed-reality headsets do not suffer from HoloLens' field-of-view limitations.

It is also worth noting that whereas HoloLens is controlled by voice and hand gestures, the primary mixed reality interface is a pair of optional hand controllers. These futuristic controllers do a good job, but take some getting used to. My advice to anyone who is considering trying out mixed reality is to take the time to update the firmware on the hand controllers. I initially had a lot of problems with my controllers, but after an update, they worked really well.

In my opinion, the Mixed Reality Portal is the single best feature in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Microsoft leverages the mixed-reality capabilities in the future.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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