It’s taken a little under two years for an acceptable VR set-up to go from a monster desktop PC and complex camera/sensor arrangement to a set of equipment that you can fit in your backpack.
Dell kindly lent us an Alienware 13 R3 along with a Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality kit to test out VR on the go.
The Alienware 13 R3 doesn’t really need much in the way of a detailed explanation, aside from the fact that it is an incredibly powerful gaming laptop that, with only a 13-inch screen, and doesn’t feel like you are lugging around a bag of bricks.
The supplied unit was powered by an i7-7700HQ running at 2.80Ghz with 16GB of memory. Graphics duties were handled by a Geforce GTX 1060. Not too shabby.
As you would expect with a gaming laptop, you are not going to get much in the way of battery life. You really need to have the laptop plugged into the mains whenever you can, especially if you plan on using it for VR.
The major stumbling that’s holding back the mainstream take-up of VR is that it’s impossible to describe to someone. It’s something that needs to be experienced. For most people the limits of their VR experience will be a dodgy 360-degree video a so-so Samsung GearVR or the limited, but still quite cool PlayStation VR.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the only thing worse than not VR is bad VR. Unfortunately, most people will only experience bad or, at best, very limited VR.
Excellent VR costs money and a fair amount of time to set up. I’ve demoed a full HTC Vive VR setup before now. Not only did I have to lug my huge tower PC to the venue, I had to spend an hour setting up the Vive base stations.
I’d never have thought that a year later I was able to do almost the same demo using a laptop and the “inside out” tracking capabilities of a self-contained VR device. That’s exactly what I can do now with Alienware’s powerful laptops and the Windows Mixed Reality-enabled Dell Visor VR kit.
Windows Mixed Reality is a bit of a nonsense term for something that is really, at this stage anyway, simply a virtual reality system. It’s a Microsoft endorsed standard for VR devices manufactured by a variety of different vendors. Whilst the designs may be different, they should all work with the Windows Mixed Reality Software included with copies of Windows 10 since the Creators Update released at the end of 2017.
Chief among these Windows MR devices is the Dell Visor. It features two 1440x1440 displays running at up to 90 Hz (matching the required ninety frames-per-second for a comfortable VR experience). There’s also a 3.5mm audio socket for your headphones. On the front of the device is two cameras. Whilst I was hoping that they would be used for some sort of AR experience, they are, for the moment anyway, only used for track purposes.
Rather than using an external camera, like the Oculus Rift, or two IR base stations like the HTC Vive, the Dell Visor’s cameras map your surrounding environment and works out the position of the head mounted display (HMD) accordingly. Similarly, the motion controllers are also tracked via the HMD cameras- the array of lights around the trackers allowing the system to position them in 3D space.
The Windows Mixed Reality in-side-out tracking works very well. It’s not quite as precise as the HTC Vive, though. You also need to keep the trackers in full view of the Visor’s cameras, whereas the Vive’s controllers track independently.
The Dell Visor’s display is superior to that of the HTC Vive, and more comfortable to wear as well. The way that the HMD flips up, welders mask-style, makes it easy to get back into the real world without having to fuss about with straps etc.
Despite the better resolution and comfort (which can be improved for the Vive by purchasing the optional deluxe head strap), Windows Mixed Reality VR system sits somewhere between the quality of PlayStation VR and the HTC Vive/Oculus Rift.
The controllers, which consist of circular brightly lit tracking areas, offer a joystick and buttons that are a lot more user-friendly than the Vive’s motion controllers. Windows MR controllers are more in line with the Oculus Rift’s Touch controllers.
Whilst Windows MR users can play in Valves Steam VR environment and enjoy the hundreds of VR titles currently available, Rift and Vive users are currently shut out of the Windows MR Home environment and the VR titles in the Windows store.
Windows Mixed Reality Home is a 3D space that acts as your entry point into the Visor’s VR world. As soon as you plug your Dell Visor into your computer (just two cables- a USB 3.0 and an HDMI cable), the Windows MR Home space loads up. First time use requires a simple calibration process and then you are in. A short tutorial introduces new users to the controls.
The default method of getting around is via teleportation. You point the cursor to where you want to go by pushing the motion controller’s joystick forward and then release. These can be adjusted, for users with stronger stomach, to unlock smooth joystick-controlled movement that not everybody is going to find comfortable.
The actual Home environment is a bright, open, multi-roomed space perched atop a cliff affording a beautiful, if surreal (floating islands), sea view. A number of the walls have windows (computer windows, not “real” windows) open with things like a media player on them. You can open any of your applications, and even your desktop as a window to put on your wall. Imagine a wall-sized spreadsheet or Microsoft Project gant chart.
You can also mess about and place object and ornaments in this virtual space. But, and this is the big difference between what Microsoft and Dell are doing compared with the likes of HTC and Oculus, Windows MR Home could be your virtual reality office.
Using an Alienware laptop and Dell’s Visor, you could set up a project office in VR and be able to go there no matter where you actually were. Whilst we are no there yet, it’s probably only a matter of time before we have people working in VR from aeroplane business-class cabins.
We are still at the dawning of this modern age of VR. Advances in screen technology and GPU power are going to propel VR to new heights in the coming years. As such, there’s never going to be a good time to jump on board. Dell’s Visor and one of the new high-powered gaming PC’s like the Alienware R13 have made VR just that little bit more accessible.