Microsoft’s approach to the VR market in 2017 comes with a pretty direct sales pitch: easy setup and affordable gear.

Add to that the promise of Steam support and eventually Halo and Microsoft might have nailed a sweet spot for VR heading into the critical holiday season. With the all-important hand controllers included, VR systems based on Microsoft’s technology start at around $400. That’s at least $100 cheaper than a comparable Rift and $200 cheaper than Vive. This is the “affordable gear” part of Microsoft’s pitch. With Black Friday coming up and Oculus showing it is willing to drop to $400 for a Rift on special occasions, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of expectation to think Microsoft’s manufacturing partners might offer special deals too and further undercut Rift.

As for the “easy setup” part of the pitch, unlike with Oculus and HTC’s 2017 VR systems, with Microsoft you just plug the headset into your Windows PC and go. No need for external sensors or tracking beacons that require additional mounting and setup. From experience, that setup can take hours of time and cause a number of technical glitches if everything isn’t perfect. In contrast, Microsoft’s system uses the tracking technology it innovated with the self-contained HoloLens to pinpoint the headset’s precise location. That’s the “easy setup” part of the sales pitch from Microsoft.

Still, there is one potential drawback to it all. It is still unknown whether Microsoft’s hand controllers can match the superior immersive quality of the virtual hands we’ve enjoyed with Rift and Vive.

As an example, in Valve’s The Lab there’s a game called Longbow. In it you stand on top of a castle wall and shoot arrows at incoming cartoon-like characters seeking to break through the front door. Behind you there is a torch and if you put an arrow in the flames it catches fire. Then you can shoot a flaming arrow at the villains rushing your castle. If you time your shot just right one flaming enemy can catch multiple baddies on fire. What’s more, in an incredibly satisfying display of archery prowess you can take an arrow and place it in the flames behind you without even looking at it. Do this efficiently enough and you can feel like Legolas atop that castle wall unleashing flaming arrow after flaming arrow without ever looking away from the battlefield. This experience is made possible by the more involved set-up process of the Rift and Vive that require mounting tracking equipment outside the play area.

Games Editor David Jagneaux went hands-on with the controllers recently and found them to point in the correct direction even when held behind his back outside the view of the headset’s sensors. This is likely because the controllers themselves include motion sensors allowing them to be tracked somewhat when out of view of the headset’s cameras. But we have yet to test something that pushes the boundaries of this approach repeatedly, as would happen in the Longbow example described above. With Microsoft revealing an extensive list earlier this week of software coming to the Windows store in the first wave, we reached out to some of these developers to find out more detail about the capabilities of the controllers. 

First off, it sounds like grabbing things from over your shoulders should work fine. Space Pirate Trainer uses this gesture recognition to pull a shield out that you are made to believe was sitting there waiting for you strapped to your back.

“Porting was relatively easy,” developer Dirk Van Welden said. “We didn’t need to make any noticeable changes when it comes down to gameplay code.”

Developers also cautioned that their software is still in development, as is Microsoft’s software, so things are likely to change. Jesse Schell, the creator behind I Expect You To Die (which generated more than $1 million in sales), said “We are finding the tracking and controllers fairly comparable. We already have the game working on PSVR, Oculus, and Vive, with motion controls, gamepad, and mouse, so we feel very confident we should be able to get things adapted to the Microsoft controllers in a way that is very intuitive and comfortable.”

Andy Moore, one of the developers behind Fantastic Contraption (also in the $1 million+ club), offered us some of the most detail we’ve heard yet about the Microsoft controllers. Fantastic Contraption also uses over-the-should shortcuts to grab pieces so you can construct a machine. Moore notes the following:

Vive tracks the hands anywhere, Oculus and PS VR can be occluded “behind you” (if you turn 180 away from your trackers), and the [Microsoft controllers] can be occluded “behind you” (always – not only if you turn 180). Each platform has their own little gotchas in that sense, but simpler gestures (like grabbing the shortcuts off your back, or arrows from a quiver) work fine for the [Microsoft controllers]. What doesn’t work is holding your hands out-of-vision for longer periods of time, but thankfully those gestures are rarer in Fantastic Contraption (and most games for that matter). The FOV on the hand tracking cameras is surprisingly wide.

An example of a way to intentionally cause a problem in [Fantastic Contraption]: Grab a stick, and without letting go let your hand dangle down beside your body and “carry” the stick with you passively while moving about your space. The hand might blip in and out of tracking, but because the stick is long and visible to your eyes, you might see it “jump” a little bit as the controller pops in and out of the tracked volume. We’ve added position-smoothing here to make it look like a more natural sway, but it’s not perfect. But again — very rare use case, we don’t expect any consumers to bump into it. We probably have more problems with people being occluded by their coffee tables in our PS VR setup.

That’s a very interesting note from Moore, suggesting that in actual use cases the potential limitation discussed above with Valve’s Longbow would be a fairly extreme edge case and that the vast majority of the time people would never notice. Nonetheless, those edge use cases could be occasional immersion breakers.

We’ll have to wait until the hardware’s release in the coming months to go more in-depth with the hardware.

Update: Additional information added clarifying there are motion sensors inside the controllers to augment the tracking provided by the headset itself.

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