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How Microsoft is bringing VR to the masses

Daniel Howley

Microsoft (MSFT) wants to bring virtual reality to the masses. At least that’s the big takeaway from the company’s Build developers conference in Seattle this week.

That’s where Alex Kipman, the creator behind Microsoft’s Hololens, announced that the first headset running the company’s mixed reality software, Windows Holographic for Windows 10, will go on sale with two motion controllers for just $399 this holiday season.

“Windows 10 is the only operating system created specifically from the ground up for mixed reality devices,” Kipman said. “Windows 10 is the best at perceiving our world and breaking down the barriers between physical and virtual reality.”

The headset, which is built by Acer, is stunningly inexpensive compared to competing systems like Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive. It’s also far easier to set up than those devices, too.

If Acer’s offering can provide a quality VR experience, Microsoft might become the new leader in the medium.

VR on the cheap

It’s worth pointing out that Acer’s headset is a far cry from Microsoft’s impressive Hololens in terms of technology. That device is a self-contained augmented reality headset that doesn’t need to be plugged into a PC.

Acer’s system, on the other hand, will need to be plugged into a Windows 10 desktop or laptop. Still, the headset is noteworthy for two reasons: It’s inexpensive compared to other virtual reality headsets, and it doesn’t require you to set up cumbersome sensors or cameras around your room.

The Acer headset is designed to work as an occluded VR device, rather than an AR system like Hololens. VR differs from AR because it doesn’t let you see the world around you. AR, meanwhile, lays graphics over the room you’re standing in similar to Snapchat’s face filters or ”Pokémon Go.”

No sensors required

What sets Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality-style headsets apart from the likes of the Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive is that it uses what’s known as “inside out tracking.” In other words, Windows Mixed Reality headsets are able to use their own onboard sensors to see and map the world around you.

So if you’ve got a table next to you, a Windows headset can detect it and either add it into your mixed reality experience or help you avoid bumping into it.

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, on the other hand, require you to set up sensors in your room to feed the headsets location data. I have a Vive and haven’t used it in quite some time specifically because doing so would require me to keep two sensor units set up in my game room at all times.

Windows controllers

Kipman’s big news, though, was the debut of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Controllers.

The handsets feature light rings around their tips that sensors embedded in your headset will be able to recognize them and place them in space as you move them.

“These motion controllers were designed to perfectly complement these Windows Mixed Reality headsets,” Kipman said. “No external sensors, or cameras to configure; giving you the freedom to move from room to room or, better yet, house to house.”

Unfortunately, Microsoft didn’t have the controllers available to test at Build, which means I can’t say how well they work.

That said, Microsoft and Acer’s offering does look intriguing. At $399 for the headset and controllers, the system is far cheaper than the $799 Vive or the $697 Rift with touch controllers. Even Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation VR costs $499 with a controller bundle.

Still, the question remains as to whether Microsoft will have enough VR software available come the holidays to make buying an Acer headset worth the investment. After all, regardless of how slick Microsoft Mixed Reality might be, without software, it’ll be a hard sell for consumers.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.