Over the past few years, we've seen an increase in the conversation around breaking content and experiences out from a device's display, and into a new world of perception and interactivity.

Virtual reality is something that we are familiar with, thanks to devices like Google Cardboard at the very simple end of the scale, through to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at the top of the experience.

Microsoft made a lot of noise around its holographic augmented reality system - HoloLens - before moving into a more mainstream position with a new wave of "mixed reality" devices.

But what is mixed reality and when can you get your hands on it?

In some ways, the notion of "mixed reality" is a way to frame Microsoft's VR arrangement in a different position to those already on the market. You can understand why: with devices like HTC Vive already needing a Windows PC to run, how is this any different?

Much of the mixed reality experience is the same as you'd expect from virtual reality in that you wear a headset, watch the screen in front of your eyes and have your movements tracked so you can move around the virtual world.

Where mixed reality wants to make a point of differentiation is in offering a system of front-mounted cameras that can give you either real world objects in your virtual world, or virtual objects in the real world. This is in essence a fusion of VR and AR (augmented reality).

The key difference to some of the mobile VR systems is that Windows Mixed Reality is designed to make you feel like you're a participant in the action, rather than a spectator, as many basic VR experiences are on rails - you follow a path looking around in an entirely synthetic world.

Just for clarification, here are some definitions of these three systems at a very basic level:

  • Virtual reality (VR): An artificial world in which you interact with virtual objects.
  • Augmented reality (AR): Virtual objects added to the real world, like Snapchat filters.
  • Mixed reality (MR): Real objects added to a virtual world, or virtual objects added to the real world, or just virtual objects in a virtual world.

With these things in mind, you can very much see how the creation of the term "mixed reality" is a catch all, covering all bases and a range of opportunities for use.

Mixed reality is a term that's gaining some traction. Where augmented reality sounds complicated, virtual reality has connotations that link back to older ideas from movies like Tron, The Lawnmower Man or Virtuosity.

Mixed reality on the other hand is all new, giving you a suggestion or the real and artificial worlds working in union, which gives Microsoft a stronger foundation to mount this latest assault.

One of the founding principles of Microsoft's system is that it's designed to work in Windows 10, as part of Windows 10 and available to a wide range of Windows 10 users.

Microsoft has detailed that Mixed Reality is designed to break out of the constraints of mobile VR in which you're static, or tracked VR in which your movements are monitored by cameras, but limited by the range of the play area in the case of HTC Vive, PS VR or Oculus Rift.

In many ways, Microsoft's "inside-out tracking" is the point that's different, keeping the movement tracking within the device. It's the ability to provide six degrees of tracking from the headset in a Windows 10 environment that really dictates how Microsoft Mixed Reality works.

Microsoft is calling this "world scale", a counter point to HTC's "room scale" for the HTC Vive.

Microsoft is claiming that HoloLens is its first mixed reality headset and while that laid the foundations in many ways - it is self-contained, doing all the tracking and running the software too - the experience of HoloLens is closer to traditional augmented reality than virtual reality, because you're looking through the visor at the real world.

None of Microsoft's Mixed Reality systems have followed this lead yet, instead all offering a display like other VR headsets (or HMD head-mounted displays). The first two development devices are also tethered, connected via HDMI and USB, again like existing VR systems. They do, however, feature this "inside-out tracking", which makes them a different proposition to those already on the market.

What these headsets can do is use the front-mounted cameras to recognise the room or objects in the room and add these to the virtual scene viewed through the headset, hence making an MR world.

This also extends to the controllers. Microsoft has announced Mixed Reality controllers which can be tracked by the headset too, again meaning there's no need for other sensors.

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There are currently two Windows MR headsets available to developers and some of the tech specs for these have been published. The headsets coming from Acer and HP both offer similar specs, breaking down like this:

  • Two 1440 x 1440 LCD panels
  • Hinged front display
  • 95-degree field of view
  • 90Hz refresh rate
  • 3.5 headphone socket for audio and microphone
  • Single cable for HDMI and USB 3.0, 4-metres long
  • Inside-out tracking
  • Both will need connecting to a Windows 10 PC.

Of course, the headset is only part of the puzzle as you need to drive it and feed it with information. Microsoft has made recommendations for minimum specs for Mixed Reality, which again frames this as a mass market device, rather than something that's going to be limited to those with a hardcore gaming machine:

  • Intel Core i5 dual-core with hyperthreading
  • Intel HD Graphics 620 or DX12 compatible GPU
  • 8GB RAM
  • HDMI 1.4, 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.3
  • USB 3.0
  • 100GB SSD
  • Bluetooth 4.0

Based on these specs, you'd be able to use Microsoft Mixed Reality with plenty of normal laptops and older PCs, unlike the existing systems like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, which have much more demanding tech specs. Currently, developers are being advised to have a more powerful PC driving the headset.

We've had the chance to sample the Acer Mixed Reality headset and first impressions are that the experience is very much as you expect from current VR devices.

The thing that really strikes home about the Windows MR system is that it involves almost no setup, it's almost like an instant VR solution, plug and play if you like, with no messing around with cameras - which is a real bonus for users.

As for the software experience, our demo was Cliff House, a Microsoft demo where you can roam around and experience various Windows tools. It's a functional demo rather than anything to get excited about, but we found that it didn't make us nauseous and the ability to just flip the visor up and return to the normal world provides instant escape.

At the moment the only headsets available are HoloLens, Acer and HP headsets and these are all designed for developers. However, there's already a full line-up of devices that have been announced from partners including those mentioned above as well as Asus, Dell and Lenovo.

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As we've mentioned a couple of times, Acer has been quick off the mark to announce its dev kit for Mixed Reality, so we've already had the chance to take a look at what the company has to offer. The headset is currently on pre-order in the US and Canada, for developers only.

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HP like Acer has been quick off the mark, offering a headset that's available for pre-order. It essentially offers the same hardware as the Acer and the only difference that's called out in the tech specs is the double-padded headband for "all day comfort" – not that you'd wear it all day, because you'd probably do yourself an injury.

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Asus looks to be taking a slightly different approach, with a front visor design that's polygonal, so it looks super cool.

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Dell's headset takes a slightly different approach with a lighter build than the others that are being showcased. We know that it will have pads that can be moved around for better comfort, but it looks lighter and less bulky than some of the other options. It also reminds us a little bit of Eve from Wall-e for some reason.

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Lenovo is reportedly targeting affordability with its headset according to Microsoft, and prototypes have already been shown off at CES 2017, although the device had no name at the time. The specs reported at the time sound the same as those we've listed here, with 1440 x 1440 pixel displays. Lenovo said it wouldn't be making motion controllers, but we imagine that all will work with Microsoft's version.

HoloLens might have put the fear into some with its $3000 asking price for the development kit. However, Acer and HP have put a price on their MR headsets. These are both still developer editions, but priced at $299 and $329 respectively, they are hugely affordable.

We suspect that the price will drop slightly for consumer release so that Mixed Reality headsets become a realistic accessory, rather than a major buying decision like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

Microsoft has recently revealed a little more about Mixed Reality and what you can expect to be doing with it. Announced via a blog post in August 2017, the company provided details of a number of developers they are working with, including the likes of Hulu, Sony Pictures, Sky VR, as well as revealing that 343 Industries is working on Mixed Reality compatibility for Halo games. 

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Microsoft has also confirmed that Steam titles will work in Mixed Reality, so there could potentially be a wide range of content when headsets land.

The dev units are scheduled to be available in August 2017 and other consumer devices are due in stores before the holiday season, i.e., Christmas.