Samsung and Microsoft’s Odyssey headset has me excited for VR in 2018

At the beginning of 2017, I wrote about what I thought might be the year's most important virtual reality technology: tracking cameras that would work from inside, not outside, a VR headset. And the results weren't great. Almost every inside-out tracking system I tried was uncomfortable, most of them were barely functional, and none of them seemed anywhere near as good as more traditional high-end headsets. It seemed like VR would have to take a step back before it could move forward. At the end of 2017, there's still no inside-out headset that's as polished as the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, or HTC Vive, which use external tracking systems. But Microsoft and Samsung have convinced me that one might be on the way.

The Samsung HMD Odyssey is one of five headsets based on Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality platform, and unlike the platform's earliest wave of development kits, it comes bundled with Microsoft's motion controllers. It works on computers running the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, as long as they meet the requirements that are posted here. The list price is $499, which is slightly less than the $599 Vive and more than the $399 Rift — making the Odyssey the most expensive of Microsoft's partner headsets.

Like all Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the Odyssey tracks head and controller motion with two front-mounted cameras. You plug in the Odyssey's USB and HDMI cables, then launch a "Mixed Reality Portal" built into the Creators Update. To draw a boundary, you just drag the headset around your available space. It detects visual features that it can use as reference points, then calculates your motion based on them. The process is easy compared to the Rift or Vive, because there's no extra hardware to set up — you don't need power outlets for tracking towers, platforms for cameras, extra USB ports, or any of the other accoutrements of a traditional VR room.

("Windows Mixed Reality" refers to both Microsoft HoloLens, which adds virtual objects to the real world, and headsets like the Odyssey, which almost any other company would call "virtual reality." This is stupid and confusing, so here, the term just refers to Microsoft's VR headset platform, not its entire range of "mixed reality" products.)

A great core experience in a less-than-great package

My experience with earlier Windows Mixed Reality demos has been positive, and so far, the Odyssey meets my expectations. The headset requires a moderately lit room and some level of visual detail around the tracking area, i.e. furniture. I can't say exactly how much detail is required, due to a lack of giant empty spaces in the Verge offices, but it's easier to find a room with furniture than one with exactly the right furniture layout for external tracking device placement. The controllers feel as precise and responsive as the Rift's or Vive's, and usually reflect my hand movement well, using half-moon strips of LEDs as tracking marks.

The biggest problems I found were ones that plague externally tracked headsets as well. The controllers' movement stalls if you put them directly behind your head or body, but that's still far better than a two-camera Rift setup, which won't let you turn around at all. Having people moving around you seems to throw off the tracking, but that also happens with the Rift and Vive — although I haven't tried the headset in a densely populated area, so I can't judge its worth for developers at crowded public demo events.

Microsoft isn't the only company with solid inside-out tracking; I've gotten good results this year from Oculus and Google prototype headsets, although Google hasn't shown off tracked controllers. But Windows Mixed Reality is the only system I've used unsupervised for hours. The headset isn't fully wireless, unlike Oculus' and Google's designs, but that also means that it slots neatly into the existing world of high-end VR — rather than requiring specially optimized experiences for lower-powered built-in computers.

Unfortunately, I'm not fond of the main Windows Mixed Reality interface, which consists of a fancy cliffside house with screens plastered to the walls. (There's also a more conventional pop-up menu.) It's cute to see your apps in different "rooms," but quickly gets annoying. And I don't think seamless VR access to Windows desktop apps is much of an advantage right now, although it's a nice option. Specific tasks like 3D modeling benefit from visual immersion, but otherwise, working in VR is an exercise in pointless misery. You can spread out lots of windows, but they're grainy and eye-straining, even with the Odyssey's 1440 x 1600 resolution per eye, which is significantly higher than the Rift's or Vive's. You've got a distracting weight on your forehead. You can't see your mouse or keyboard. Designers are working to fix all these problems, but the technology just isn't there yet.

Please don't use a VR headset as a monitor — yet

And the Odyssey's overall design is pretty mediocre. It's better than, say, Acer's flimsy-feeling Windows Mixed Reality headset. But the shiny front collects fingerprints, and the controllers' black plastic looks and feels cheap. The whole headset is a hefty 645 grams, compared to around 470 grams for the Rift or Vive, and 610 grams for PlayStation VR. Its adjustable head ring looks a lot like the PlayStation VR's, but it doesn't feel as comfortable or well-balanced.

The Windows Mixed Reality controller design, meanwhile, feels paradoxically inadequate and overcomplicated. It takes some good cues from Oculus Touch, with two controllers that are molded for each hand, powered by removable batteries, and feature a front trigger and a secondary grip button. But besides a start and menu button, the only controls are a thumb stick and a trackpad, which sit right beside each other on each controller. You're supposed to be able to click each corner of the trackpad, but it's too small and mushy to do this consistently, so it's only effective as a redundant analog stick.

Despite all this, the core VR experience is roughly as good as the Rift or Vive — and that's really saying something. I used it to play Fallout 4 VR, and the experience was what I would have expected from any other high-end tethered headset, with a lot less headache. I did have to redraw the boundaries multiple times, because the furniture in my test room got significantly rearranged between sessions, but that only takes a minute or two. And while Windows Mixed Reality doesn't have a lot of exciting exclusive content, it has something arguably better: support for SteamVR, which could make it a reasonable Vive substitute for casual users. (Sadly, it still doesn't play Rift games.)

If you're holding off on a tethered headset because they seem uncomfortable or don't have enough content, the Odyssey won't be a huge improvement. It's supposed to work with more low-end computers than other tethered headsets, but individual VR experiences still have different requirements — if your PC can't run a graphically demanding game well on a flat screen, the same will likely be true in VR. And if you're invested in one platform already, Windows Mixed Reality may not add a lot. But the Odyssey suggests that you can cut out some of the most irritating, onerous parts of using a VR headset, without losing serious experience quality in the process. It's not ushering in the next generation of VR headsets, but it makes that generation feel a lot closer — just in time for 2018.

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