Virtual reality games let you experience things you never could on a monitor. But just a couple years ago, they required high-end gaming rigs with expensive headsets. Thankfully, that's no longer true. While you still can spend hundreds of dollars on an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift if you want the best possible VR experience, you can also buy a Windows Mixed Reality headset and enjoy many of the same games with the PC you already have.
In this post, we'll go over how to get into VR gaming while saving some money, either by buying a cheaper headset or shopping for a holiday deal. And we'll tell you how how the cheaper Windows Mixed Reality headsets differ from the mainstream Vive and Rift headsets.
Holiday deals on the Oculus Rift, Vive and VR games
Oculus dropped the price of the Rift + Touch combo to $349 over Cyber Monday, then decided to keep that price for the holiday season. The Rift still costs $349 on the Oculus store .
The Viveport store, which actually carries tons of games that work on the Vive and the Oculus Rift, is having a big holiday sale from December 13 . This includes up to 40 percent off a whole order, which will hopefully apply to a headset. And some games are discounted by as much as 95 percent. So even if you already have one of the headsets, it'll be a great way to stock up on a library of VR games.
Those deals will be the cheapest way to get into high-end PC VR this holiday. But if that's still too rich for your blood, there's still a great alternative: Windows Mixed Reality.
It’s not all going to be plastic. Today, virtually everyone loves everything about VR, which accounts for the magnitude of its success. But the technology continues to evolve at a breakneck speed. One focus of technological advances related to VR is the engineering and design of the headset. Expectedly, there are ultra high-tech and complicatedly designed headsets out there. But some tech wizards have taken it one step further, thereby making it way more accessible to everyone. Now, there are tutorials about making VR headsets out of pieces of cardboard. Not only has this opened a plethora of possibilities for VR, it has gotten people to think in creative ways to upsize their experiences.
What is Windows Mixed Reality?
For the next three weeks, PC Gamer is focusing on what's new, what's coming, and what's most exciting in virtual reality. Read all of our VR Month coverage. You can find even more VR content on our sister site, TechRadar .
Before explaining what the difference is between Windows Mixed Reality and other VR platforms, it's important to understand what WMR is. There's a lot of misinformation about Microsoft's VR platform, mostly in relation to what games it can play, but I'll lay out the facts—coming from someone who owns the Dell WMR headset.
Windows Mixed Reality is the platform that Microsoft developed for both virtual reality headsets (like the ones you play games with) and augmented reality displays (like the Microsoft HoloLens )—hence the name Mixed Reality. It's basically a Windows interface presented in 3D; you can open the Start Menu, ask Cortana to open an application, move around windows, and so on.
When you put on a Windows Mixed Reality VR headset, you are placed into a virtual house. Here you can re-arrange the furniture, pin app windows to the walls, and so on. Most apps from the Windows Store can function in Mixed Reality, and you can even interact with your PC desktop by launching the 'Desktop' app from the Start Menu.
Virtual Reality technology is widely accepted in the healthcare field. From diagnostics to treatment to practicing difficult surgical procedures, healthcare institutions are incorporating the technology in all the facets of the industry.
You can easily run Mixed Reality on a mid-range PC, and Microsoft made an app that checks if your computer is up to the task. But if you're running games that also run on other VR headsets, expect the system requirements to be about the same.
The other main difference between WMR and the Vive/Rift is that Mixed Reality headsets use "inside-out" tracking. Instead of having external sensors that need to "see" the headset (like the Vive/Rift use), Mixed Reality headsets have cameras on the viewer itself. Oculus is using this same technique with its new headset, the Quest . External sensors have an advantage in accuracy and latency, but inside-out tracking keeps getting better. As long as your room is well lit, WMR's inside-out technique should get the job done.
The main critiques of these headsets, which are notably cheaper than the Vive and the Rift, are the build quality, ergonomics and tracking of the controllers and the narrower FOV on some models. The controllers aren't as refined as the Oculus Touch, but are still more than capable of handling the frenetic Beat Saber on the hardest difficulty .
What games work on Mixed Reality?
One of the misconceptions about Mixed Reality is that you have to buy games from the Microsoft Store, but that's not true at all.
Microsoft worked with Valve to add support for SteamVR , so nearly every VR game on Steam works out of the box on Mixed Reality Headsets. You can check if a game officially supports Windows Mixed Reality by looking at the Steam product description—there's a 'VR Support' box on the right side of the page.
You can also use this filter to only view WMR games. Most popular VR games already support Mixed Reality headsets, but many that never added official compatibility still work—like Google Earth VR and VRChat .
The Royals Are Also Using It. You know that virtual reality is big when highly prominent people are also getting in on it. In March 2018, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle honored International Women's Day by encouraging young women to study science and technology. In the process, they attended a school and tested out a virtual reality set. The couple had a positive experience with virtual reality. They both appeared to enjoy learning about the technology and how the headset works.
Steam also displays which VR headsets a game supports in search results—just look for the WMR icon below the game title (it looks like a smiling Cylon ).
Which Mixed Reality headset should I buy?
With the exception of the premium Samsung Odyssey headset, all Mixed Reality headsets are indentical hardware-wise. Each has a 90Hz 2880 x 1440 display and the same depth sensors. That gives them the same refresh rate as the Rift and Vive, but higher resolution displays.
The FOV varies slightly between WMR headset, from 95 degrees to 110 degrees, which is the FOV of the Vive and Rift. If you want the better field of view, the Dell headset is a good comppromise at 105 degrees.
One trade-off of these affordable WMR headsets: there's no built-in audio. All of the Mixed Reality headsets use the same Windows VR controllers, and you'll definitely want those for motion controls.
The headsets from Acer and Lenovo used to go on sale frequently, but they seem to now be discontinued. At the time of writing, HP's headset is the cheapest, at around $200-250 (depending on the retailer). You can also find Lenovo's headset without the controllers for around $100 from various stores, but most games require motion controllers.
The First Time Is Not Easy. Most people who have tried virtual reality once would like to experience it again. However, for most people, the first time is not an easy process as it usually requires some sort of adjustment. Some people say that after their first virtual reality experience, they felt very disjointed. Others complained about motion sickness. However, once they have tried virtual reality for a second time, they adjust well to the experience until they get so used to it.
Lenovo Explorer Mixed Reality Headset (Iron Gray) | $99.99
If you mainly want to play racing simulators and other games that don't require motion controllers, this is the absolute cheapest way to get into PC VR. Buy at B&H
If you don't mind buying used/open-box headsets, you can find plenty of people selling their old Mixed Reality devices on eBay . Even though WMR headsets are quite good, the demand for them is relatively low, so many sellers will list them for very low prices.
And for more on VR gaming on a budget, check out our sister site Techradar's guide to building a VR-capable PC for under $700 .