What Is Mixed Reality on Windows 10, and When Will I Be Able to Buy it?

Microsoft is building an ecosystem of “Mixed Reality” headsets from various PC manufacturers. They’ll be much less expensive than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and will require much less powerful PCs. Mixed Reality features are here today in the Creators Update, but the headsets themselves will be available for purchase sometime in the 2017 holiday season.

What Is “Mixed Reality”?

“Mixed Reality” is the new name for “Windows Holographic”, a Microsoft platform that will power a wide range of different headsets, including Microsoft’s HoloLens. According to Microsoft, it was renamed Mixed Reality because it includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and holographic computing.

Augmented reality involves placing objects over the real world. You’ll still see the real world, but those virtual objects will appear over it—think Pokémon Go, but in a headset (and hopefully better).

Virtual reality headsets don’t display the real world. Headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and Samsung Gear VR work like this today, offering screens that show you a virtual world without the real world being visible.

Holographic computing involves holograms—like on the HoloLens, which Microsoft calls “the first self-contained, holographic computer”.

What You’ll Be Able to Do in Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality will be an entire application platform that apps and games of various types can use. You’ll likely find everything from 360-degree videos and social networking to action games and virtual tours of the real world. Developers can create any apps or games they like, just as they can for other platforms.

Microsoft also showed off creating a custom space and decorating it with your own furniture, holograms, and apps. Mixed Reality supports those new UWP apps you can get in the Windows Store. For example, you could have an app icon sitting on a shelf you launch, or you could have a floating window representing the app.

This is designed to work either with augmented reality or holographic headsets, where you’ll see the objects superimposed over the real world, or a virtual reality headsets where you’ll have a virtual room.

That’s just the home experience. For example, we’d also expect to see integration with Microsoft’s Paint 3D for working with 3D models in a 3D space.

Mixed Reality Headsets and Controllers Are On Their Way

While Mixed Reality features technically arrived with Windows 10’s Creators Update, they aren’t ready to use yet—unless you have a HoloLens.

Currently, Mixed Reality doesn’t support either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Microsoft says it’s up for Oculus and HTC to work together with Microsoft if they want these devices supported by the Windows Mixed Reality platform.

That’s because Microsoft has laid a different foundation for the headsets PC manufacturers are producing. These headsets will include their own built-in tracking features, so you don’t need to install and position separate tracking sensors like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require—just plug in the headset and go. They’ll also include built-in cameras, so they can perform Augmented Reality tasks by overlaying a video of the real world from the outside of your headset.

Microsoft is partnering with Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and 3Glasses to create inexpensive Mixed Reality headsets that will start at $299, much cheaper than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that start at $599 and $799 respectively.

At the Fall Creators Update event, Microsoft announced that it will also offer touch controllers that will provide a much better interface for these environments than an Xbox One controller or mouse. Bundles of a headset and touch controllers will start at $399.

These headsets sound pretty good compared to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, being much cheaper, requiring a less powerful PC, and not needing any separate tracking sensors. However, there’s sure to be a downside—the experience will almost certainly be less smooth or, at least, offer less graphical fidelity. They should still offer a solid experience, however.

These headsets and controllers will be available for purchase in the 2017 holiday shopping season. Keep an eye out for more details.

What PC Hardware You’ll Need

There’s a good chance your PC will support these headsets. They’re designed to run on mainstream consumer PCs and should even work properly on future laptops with Intel integrated graphics. They don’t need the same powerful gaming PC hardware the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require.

Intel and Microsoft informed PC manufacturers of the minimum hardware specifications PCs will require to power these holiday 2017 headsets. They are:

  • CPU: Intel Mobile Core i5 (e.g. 7200U) dual-core with Hyperthreading, Intel Desktop i3 (e.g. 6100 or 7th generation), AMD FX4350 4.2Ghz quad-core, or equivalent
  • GPU: Integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 (GT2) equivalent or greater DirectX 12 Capable discrete GPU
  • Connectivity: HDMI 1.4 for 60 Hz headsets, HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort for 90 Hz headsets
  • RAM: 8GB+ dual-channel required for integrated graphics on laptops, 8GB on desktops
  • HDD: 10 GB of free space
  • USB: USB 3.0 Type-A or USB 3.1 Type-C port with DisplayPort alternate mode
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0 for accessories

To verify your PC can power these Mixed Reality headsets, launch the Mixed Reality Portal application—discussed below—to test your hardware.

These headsets won’t just be for PCs, either. Microsoft has said that Project Scorpio—a new, more powerful version of the Xbox One console—will be capable of using these headsets. “Our plan is to bring mixed reality content to the Xbox One family of devices, including Project Scorpio, in 2018,” states a Microsoft blog post.

How to Use the Mixed Reality Simulator Today

While we’re waiting for these Mixed Reality headsets to actually launch, you can play with the Mixed Reality simulator today. It’s included on Windows 10’s Creators Update.

To launch it, open your start menu and search for “Mixed Reality”. Launch the “Mixed Reality Portal” application.

Go through the interface and and it will check if your hardware is compatible.

Windows won’t normally allow you to continue without a headset, but you can click the “Set up simulation (for developers)” link in the app to continue. Windows will download the Mixed Reality content to your computer, allowing you to play with a simulation of the Mixed Reality environment.

When it’s done, you can click menu > For developers and enable “Simulation”. You’ll get a virtual room where you can walk around and launch apps.

Left click and drag to move your view. Right click to perform an “air tap” that activates what you’re currently looking at. Walk around by pressing the WASD keys on your keyboard, just like in a video game. You can also connect an Xbox One controller and use it to navigate the interface.

Press the Windows key on your keyboard to open a Start menu for launching apps. Launch the “Holograms” application to place objects—like an animated dog—in the world.

If you decide you no longer want to use the simulator and want to free up that disk space, head to Settings > Mixed Reality > Uninstall to remove it. You can always reinstall the Mixed Reality software by launching the Mixed Reality Portal in the future.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.