In April 2017 Windows 10 rolled out its Creators Edition update, bringing various new creative tools - such as Paint 3D for three-dimensional editing - into the operating system. The lesser talked about point is that the Windows Mixed Reality platform - which includes Microsoft Hololens support - is also now compatible.
That paves the way for a Mixed Reality future and it's not just Microsoft banking on that, as five manufacturers - Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo and HP - are each developing head-mounted display systems to play nice with the cross-platform Windows setup.
The first of these, the Acer Windows Mixed Reality head-mounted display - which will almost certainly be renamed when it becomes available to buy at the end of 2017 - we got to sample at Acer's annual conference in New York. All you'll need to use it is a Windows PC (with discrete graphics - but in the future integrated graphics will be ample), and a head.
First up, let's breakdown the whole argument between Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR). The latter, VR, involves being entirely surrounded in a fully virtual world with zero object-based interaction crossing over with the real. Mixed Reality (MR), Microsoft argues, is when greater physical factors from the real world merge with the virtual to create interactive results. Hololens, for example, overlays positional holograms onto a floating heads-up screen which interact in a fully immersive way with the environment around you. You can walk around virtual objects in the real world, as if they're there.
So it may come as a surprise that Acer's so-called Windows Mixed Reality setup is a screen. There's currently no option for the built-in cameras on the headset to deliver the surrounding world in digital form. In that respect, we would call this experience VR.
The MR aspect - limited as it is - comes into play because the same six-degrees of motion that Hololens offers are used to input into the experience: so, say, take a step to the left or right in the real world and it'll input into the virtual world. Pure VR, by Microsoft's definition, would only respond to head movements as input, not physical ones (which means HTC Vive clearly blurs the boundaries).
One of the core factors of the Acer Microsoft Mixed Reality experience is the simplicity of setup. The two built-in cameras assess the surrounding environment, so can gauge position and be setup within about 15-seconds without the need for additional sensors in the room (unlike HTC Vive which needs a variety of boxes positioned correctly to enjoy the experience). Plugging in one cable and being transported into another world mere seconds later is a very cool thing indeed.
For our demo we were immersed into Microsoft's "Cliff House", which is a virtual house atop a cliff, surrounded by woodland (a little Seattle-esque, we feel, based on the company's HQ). It's kitted out with various interactive Windows tools: there are screens to watch movies, dip into 360-degree videos, send mail, listen to music, and effectively navigate around the concept of an operating system's core in a virtual home environment format.
Which is interesting, but doesn't really deliver a more functional experience of Windows to any degree. It's fun, but it feels like a demo of potential rather than a purposeful reason to don a headset to watch a movie within a world of another world - when you could instead just cast to your TV via a laptop, while curled up on the sofa.
That's one of these things about VR and MR: incredible though the technology is, it's the genuine use cases that are lacking. This is where the likes of Acer and the other four manufacturers could become so important: the hardware has to be out there for people to experiment and for audiences to begin to understand the options available. Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality; they're both additional tools in content delivery.
Whatever our view of where things will go, however, it's the technical quality of the Acer Mixed Reality experience that shines through most of all. For a $299 headset, we weren't expecting much. And yet, despite the fit not being perfect and some light entering through the rear sides, the quality of visuals is high and we didn't feel nauseous or too disconnected from the world (some get fearful when strapping a massive unit over their face - whereas this Acer unit can easily be popped up and down by flipping the front section forward). The virtual world looks crisp and clear, with a workable refresh rate, all at a price point that will get people potentially opening their wallets.
With Windows now supporting Xbox titles - and increasing interest in the gaming sector - we can see this immersive option becoming an in-point for gamers. This Acer headset acts as the initial stepping stone, Windows acts as the handrails. What's needed right now is that breakthrough moment to necessitate its worth however.
So here's hoping, as this affordable kit could lead to some rather exciting content in the future. At the moment it looks like VR in another form, so a true vision of MR still eludes us.