At Wintellect, we’ve been doing more and more work recently with Microsoft’s HoloLens device. But the HoloLens, at several thousand dollars, is an expensive proposition. Now Microsoft has broadened it’s strategy, rebranded it as “Windows Mixed Reality,” and has worked with hardware partners to come to market with an array of lower-priced headset options. One of the newest of these devices has just become available from Acer, and at only $299 retail price, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
This post will walk you through the installation process for the device step-by-step, showing you what to expect. And at the end, I will provide my conclusions about the device itself and the setup experience.
Spoiler alert: At a high level, my conclusions were:
1) The installation process (for me at least ) was easy and flawless, with no glitches.
2) The device itself is pretty cool, as was the experience.
3) We are seeing the start of a new future coming in Mixed Reality experiences, but this is only the beginning of a long road, and we are still just getting started.
So, with that said, here we go…
The Acer Headset
When you open the box, it is simplicity itself. There is the headset, a tiny set of instructions (one page), and that’s it. The headset has two cable coming out of it on the right side: an HDMI connector, and a USB connector, both on about a 10-foot cord. That’s right, this is not a HoloLens; you must be connected to a computer to use it, like most other VR (Virtual Reality) or MR (Mixed Reality) devices.
To start installation is simplicity itself: plug in the two cables, and the setup program will install and launch, and you’re off to the races. A few things to make note of at this point:
1) On the left side of the device, there is one extra jack you can use to plug in your own audio headset or earbuds. That’s how you will hear sound. I just used the same earbuds I use for my iPhone.
2) Suffice it to say, your basic old laptop likely won’t cut it. It may work, but without a fast processor and good graphics card, you may not be very happy. These things need power! (Note: more on this later).
3) Everything going on is reflected on the screen on your computer, so when you start out you don’t have to have the headset on. You will follow the instructions on the computer screen, which I have screenshots of below.
The first thing I did, of course, is put my headset on anyway, because it’s cool. Here’s a picture below. Trailing off the back right side behind me you can just see the cable hanging off.
And by the way, none of the new devices (nor the existing HoloLens device) have come out with any controllers yet. However, for the Acer, you can connect a Bluetooth Xbox controller, which is what I did.
And finally, if you want to get a look at what programming for Windows Mixed Reality devices is like, check out this public GitHub repo for a step by step hands-on-lab that Wintellect built for Microsoft:
The Installation Process
As I said earlier, once you plug I the device, the setup program will install and pop up. You get an initial splash screen and a Terms of Service screen. Just click through them.
The next thing it will do is check out your computer, to make sure it has the horsepower needed to run the device. Luckily, mine did. For reference, I have an HP Z-Book Mobile Workstation, with a fairly strong graphics card. Even so, my impression is that it was barely enough. The installation went smoothly, but there were minor lags from time to time while using it, and the fan it my laptop went full blast the entire time. Also, there is more info (really good, understandable info) available if you click the link in the picture below that says “Learn more.” It takes you to a web page that very clearly tells you what you need in terms of hardware. One thing it told me is that because I don’t have a “discrete” graphics card (instead, I have an “integrated” GPU in my laptop), the frame rate automatically drops from 90Hz to 60Hz). So it’s pretty highly recommended to use this with a desktop PC and not a laptop. However, I’ve seen these devices used with higher end “gamer” laptops and the experience seemed quite good. For myself, though, I will have to work with what I have. And luckily, I made the minimum requirements.
You can find these details at the following URL:
Once you get passed the hardware requirements screen, you get a very brief introduction to the device itself, as you can see in the screenshot below. Once again, it’s clear that this is a pretty simple device (thus the $299 price). Once item of note, those sensors you see in the picture? They’re important! It means that, unlike some other devices on the market, the headset can see and map the space around you. In other words, it can find the floor and walls. This is nice, as some other devices actually require you to have sensor stands that you put around your room to do this. With the Acer, the device has this capability built in.
Okay. Finally all the preludes are done, and it’s time for the nitty gritty of the device configuration. First, the setup asks you to enter your height, and then stand in the middle of the space you are going to operate in while holding the device at eye level. It wants to start understanding the environment around you, and this first step will help it determine where the floor is. After all, you don’t want to end up floating in the air or starting out half under the ground once you get going.
Then, the final step in the setup of the device: mapping out the boundary of your space. If you’ve used the HoloLens before (a much more powerful and sophisticated device), you might be surprised. With the HoloLens, you simply stand there and slowly turn in a circle, and the HoloLens maps out your entire room (floor, ceiling, walls, and furniture) on its own. With the Acer, however, you physically walk the device around the boundaries of your room to do this. And remember, you only have a 10 foot cord. A colleague of mine actually uses a backpack mounted computer and battery pack with a wireless HDMI port, so he can be mobile and walk around larger spaces. It’s very cool, but let’s face it, most of us will not have this ability.
Once you’re done, you get a picture if the boundaries of your physical space. Let me repeat that: your PHYSICAL space, not your VIRTUAL space. Once you put the headset on, your virtual environment can be limitless; you can be speeding around in outer space in your rocket ship, or on top of Mount Everest. But since you don’t want to be walking around and crashing into the very real walls and furniture in your physical world, the device wants to map that out so you can see (inside the virtual world) where the real world boundaries are.
And BOOM, you’re done. The next screen you see is a startup simulation of a house that you can roam through. It is indeed very cool. You can throw up a browser window, or watch a movie floating in the air. You can go upstairs and downstairs. You can launch other holographic apps and games. And you can manipulate your environment, perhaps adding or moving around furniture, or “teleporting” to other places.
And that “real world boundary” we mapped out? That’s shown by that shimmery screen of dotted lights along the right side of the picture below. That’s one of the walls in my home office. You can turn that off but you best be careful when you do.
And that’s it. The whole process took me maybe 5-10 mins to do, and most of that because I was taking notes and trying to be very careful not to make some kind of mistake. But the reality was it was simple and painless.
Additionally – although not discussed here – I also took one of my Xbox Bluetooth controllers and connected it to my laptop, which made it available as an input control for the headset (no additional configuration necessary). So as I played around I had keyboard, mouse, and Xbox controller available to me as input controls. The purpose-built controllers have not yet come to market as of the time of this post.
Scroll down a little bit more and I’ll give you my personal conclusions on this process.
So what are my thoughts on the overall experience, and the device itself? These are all just personal opinions, but here you go.
1) The installation process (for me at least) was easy and flawless, with no glitches. It took just a few to several minutes to complete, with honestly not one question of the type “Hmmm, which choice should I select, and what are the implications?” Plus, when setup is complete, you’re popped right into an initial virtual environment to play with. Good experience all around. My only complaint would be that once that happens, there is pretty much no guidance on how to manipulate the environment and do things. It took a lot of clicking around and some frustration to figure most things out (I’m still in learning mode here). There really should be a tutorial that that pops up immediately upon first use.
2) The device itself is pretty cool, as was the experience. Again, this is a VERY basic device. Basically just two lenses and two sensors around the plastic casing. Still, it was comfortable to where (except for the tether, but that’s par for the course these days except for HoloLens). I also did have fun with the (again very basic) sample apps that were available out of the box. No issues with the device so far.
3) Compute power. It’s high. I have a fairly high end laptop that I tried this on and it was basically maxed out. I think it will be a long road until we can get high end MR/VR/AR working on common consumer hardware, especially since the device demands will in my opinion increase faster than the compute and GPU power.
4) We’re just at the beginning of the road here. It’s very obvious to me that:
a. We are seeing the start of what I believe is (and I don’t think this is hyperbole) a revolution in holographic technology, with an accompanying impact on business and society. We are taking the first baby steps, but are also at what I think is a first inflection point where the technology is just starting to come to a place where useful and practical things can be done. Now that we’re there, I believe the industry will start to take off as other tech industries have once they reach that critical point.
b. However, the other side of the coin is that the current set of devices are JUST beginning to be something that you can get interested in and have fun using. Don’t expect to start doing your work via holographic headset yet. For now, except for the most targeted use cases (think: aviation engine mechanic, for instance), and for those with money to burn to create the applications for it, this still remains a mostly future technology. By that I really mean that the consumerization of holographic technology is not yet here. At lwast not quite.
HoloLens Vs Acer Headset
Before I get going, it’s incredibly important to state that this is a completely apples to oranges comparison, so I’m only adding this section for those who have experienced one device but not the other. These devices are targeted at completely different markets and offer completely different experiences, and with completely different price points. You cannot make any kind of honest head to head comparison for those reasons. However, in terms of differences, I thought it may be helpful to outline some of them.
· Price: $3,000 for HoloLens vs $299 for the Acer. This is a10x difference. Enough said
· Applications on one will work on the other. You can write once, an work across all Windows Mixed Reality devices. You do have to take some things into consideration, such as input gestures and the like, but for the most part, you are programming a single app.
· Tetherless vs tethered. A big difference. With the HoloLens, all the computing power is in the headset; it’s truly a remarkable display of technology if you get into the geek aspects of it. The Acer is much more basic. Being freed from the tether to you computer is a huge deal. But you will also pay a huge price for that benefit.
· Audio. The HoloLens has it integrated into the device. For the Acer, you must supply your own additional audio headset or earbuds
· AR (Augmented Reality) vs VR (Virtual Reality). Another big difference between the two devices, and one that highlights there different purposes. With the HoloLens, you see your own physical reality augmented by the holographic display. With the Acer (a VR devices), you are completely immersed in a virtual environment, separate from your own.
· Features and capabilities. Because of the AR aspect for HoloLens, it actually includes a set of sophisticated features beyond what the Acer VR headset provides. Some examples include sophisticated environment mapping, object mapping, and the ability to use gestures from the users (hand motions) as input.