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Samsung's Windows-powered VR headset is a winner

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor


Virtual reality headsets aren’t cheap. Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive sell for $400 and $600, respectively, and you still need a powerful PC with a dedicated graphics chip to run them.

Microsoft (MSFT) wants to change that with its Windows Mixed Reality software, which runs on a number of headsets produced by companies ranging from Acer to Samsung. Available as a free download for all Windows 10 users, Windows Mixed Reality can be used with PCs ranging from those with basic, integrated graphics chips to hardcore beasts favored by gamers.

I gave Windows Mixed Reality a spin using Samsung’s new $499 HMD Odyssey — weird name, I know — and the combination made for what might just be my favorite piece of VR headgear yet. Here are the best parts about that headset:

  • Works with a wide array of Windows laptops and desktops
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Easy setup
  • No external sensors to fumble with

The headset is big, but comfortable

Samsung’s Odyssey headset and Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality software make for a potent introduction to virtual reality.

The Odyssey, like many VR headsets, is a bulky contraption that you strap to your head to jump into virtual worlds. As far as comfort goes, the Odyssey is relatively cosey and nicely cushioned around contact points like the forehead and rear.

The Odyssey offers a 3.5-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 1,440 x 1,600 per eye, which is a bit sharper than the Rift’s and Vive’s. That’s important, because with the headsets positioned so close to your eyes, individual pixels are easier to see. And if you don’t pack enough pixels into a VR display, you’ll end up with a kind of screen-door effect, where you see the lines between each dot, which diminishes the experience.

I certainly didn’t notice this during my time with the Odyssey, but the display still isn’t nearly as crisp as a 1080p TV viewed from your couch.

Controlling yourself

Each of Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality headsets comes with a pair of touch controllers adorned with rings of white LEDs. Oculus and HTC also include controllers with their headset packages.

I found the Windows Mixed Reality controllers comfortable to hold and manipulate, but at times I accidentally pressed the Windows button and exited to the Mixed Reality home screen while playing games.

Every Windows Mixed Reality headset comes with a pair of motion controllers.

It’s helpful that Microsoft made the controllers compatible with standard AA batteries too, since I hate having to recharge the internal batteries for my PlayStation VR headset when they die.

Inside the machine

You navigate through your VR world via Microsoft’s aptly named Cliff House. The app, which is similar to setups in other VR systems, lets you place apps you frequently use on its walls like interactive paintings.  

A massive theater room lets you view movies on an enormous display, while the Windows Store gives you access to new VR apps to download.

As far as Windows Mixed Reality apps go, Microsoft gives you access to a number of offerings in the Windows Store, as well as VR versions of traditional apps like the Edge browser, Photos and Mail.

My only problem with things like Edge, though, is that typing web addresses requires you to hunt and peck using the motion controllers’ pointers. It’s a pain, and makes visiting websites rather burdensome.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets are far easier to set up than competing VR systems.

You’re not limited to just using Windows Mixed Reality apps, though. Microsoft’s headsets also work with Valve’s Steam VR, which means that you can play any VR games you bought through the service.

Unfortunately, you can’t place a Steam VR icon on your wall in the Cliff House. Instead, you have to open the app via the Desktop window, which is an app that emulates a traditional Windows desktop.

Still, I found launching steam apps from the actual desktop quite easy.

6 degrees of freedom

The biggest benefit of Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality headset is that it uses a 6 degrees of freedom, or 6DoF, system to translate your physical movements into the virtual world. 6DoF uses internal sensors that can read your surroundings and orient you in space so that you can do things like walk, duck, or jump in VR.

6DoF also allows you to use room-scale VR (VR that lets you walk around in a large area) without any outside sensors. You’ll need to set up a virtual boundary so you don’t go walking into a wall, but even that’s rather easy.

The Oculus Rift, on the other hand, requires three external cameras placed around your room to create a full room-scale VR experience. HTC, meanwhile, uses two sensors, but they have to be mounted on tall tripods or screwed into your walls.

Of the three, Microsoft’s is clearly the most efficient, as you don’t need to set up additional sensors. What’s more, Microsoft’s offering works surprisingly well. I didn’t have any issues with the Samsung headset tracking my movements.

The problem, though, is that like the Rift and Vive, Samsung’s headset, and all Windows Mixed Reality headsets, connect to your PC via a wire. That can get tricky when you’re walking around in a game and lose track of where the line is. So if you’re afraid of tripping, you might just want to stay seated.

Should you get it?

Samsung’s HMD Odyssey is a standout in an increasingly crowded headset market. It’s comfortable, offers relatively sharp visuals and, thanks to the headgear’s 6DoF functionality and easy setup, you don’t need a mechanical engineering degree to use the it.

But there still isn’t a must-have VR experience available for any headset. There are some great games and videos, but nothing compelling enough to get me to buy a headset of my own. That’s not to say there won’t be in the future, but for now much of what’s available is either a tech demo or modified version of an existing game.

Still, if you’re set on picking up a headset, the $499 Odyssey is a great choice.

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