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February 16, 2018

Best Windows Mixed Reality Headsets of 2018

Windows Mixed Reality headsets

Do you want to know the difference between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality? Are you considering buying a Windows mixed reality headset? In this review we’ll answer the question, compare the products and give you some advice on choosing which headset to buy.

First, what’s the difference between the three so-called “realities”? In brief, virtual reality creates a fully immersive artificial world via a headset that closes out the world. Augmented reality involves wearing transparent glasses through which you see the world, while virtual objects are overlaid either by being projected onto the glass or (in theory) onto the eyes themselves.

But what about “Mixed Reality”? This is where it gets a little confusing. The general and widespread definition of mixed reality is that it overlays reality with virtual objects (or real ones that are in another location), but these objects can be “anchored” to the real world and the user can interact with them like in virtual reality. Imagine having a videochat with friend hovering before you while at the same time walking in the street and looking ahead to see where you’re going.

The problem with this definition is two-fold. The first is that it could just be considered a definition of one of the uses of augmented reality, rather than a true separate category. The second is that Microsoft has just come along and introduced something called Windows Mixed Reality. This is a new standard for headsets by Microsoft partners, but despite the name, it is really just virtual reality by another name.

The reason Microsoft treats it as different is because their mixed reality headsets use inside-out tracking but have their own built-in screens. Inside-out tracking means that unlike the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, they don’t lighthouses or external towers to track your head position or movement. Having built-in screens is important. It means that unlike Google Cardboard, Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR, they are more than just phone housing units.

In fact, this combination of inside-out tracking but with its own built-in screen has been around for a while. The Osmose virtual reality headset was built on this concept and although the company behind it lacks the resources to market it like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, they still produced a credible product.

But now Microsoft has taken matters to a new level with Windows Mixed Reality. This is a new standard that has been implemented by Microsoft’s partners: Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung. These companies have already established themselves as makers of Windows-based PCs, so they clearly know their stuff. And with five of them competing in this area, there is good choice of headsets.

One of the good things about Microsoft getting in on VR - even if they insist on calling it “mixed reality”, is that it offers a cheaper alternative to getting into the virtual world via the high-end competition. At the same time, it avoids the kludgyness of the phone housing low-end units.

It is worth noting that there are two Windows Mixed Reality standards. There is the regular and then there is Mixed Reality Ultra. These headsets all support Ultra, but getting the benefits of Ultra is dependent on having WMR Ultra computer. Ultra offers a 90 Hz refresh rate, instead of the 60 Hz for regular WMR. It also offers better Field of View (100° instead of 90° for regular WMR). Other advantages of Mixed Reality Ultra are that you can interact with more than apps at the same time, and also you can capture, share and stream what you’re doing.

With all these headsets, you can install Steam and SteamVR on your PC and then install Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR. Once you have done that, you can play SteamVr games on the headset. And with Revive, you can also play Oculus Rift games. These headsets give you access to both Rift and Vive apps, as well as Microsoft’s native Mixed Reality games. Currently, haptic feedback is lacking from Vive games because the motors used to produce vibration in the WMR controllers are different from those in the Vive controllers. Microsoft is looking into finding a solution for this, but as of yet, no solution has been implemented.

Still on the subject of the controllers require Bluetooth 4.0, so if your PC doesn’t have Bluetooth - as is the case with most desktops - you need a Bluetooth dongle. Paradoxically, Microsoft recommends plugging the dongle into a Bluetooth 2.0 port on the computer for this, even though the dongle itself is 4.0. A quirk worth bearing in mind.

 And so, with this in mind, we’ll take a look, in this review, at the five Windows Mixed Reality headsets available in the market and compare what they have to offer.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Acer mixed reality with controllers

Acer mixed reality with controllers

The Acer has a certain visual appeal about it, even before you take it out of the box. Unlike the other headsets reviewed here, it is a mixture of blue and black - a bit like the Sony PlayStation VR. In fact, blue is something of a theme color with the Acer because both the headset and the controllers arrive in blue boxes. The actual Head Mounted Display is wrapped in plastic and then sandwiched in foam to hold it in place.

It has a resolution of 1440 x 1440 per eye (2” x 2.89”) offering excellent visual qualities. This resolution is higher than the Vive and Rift. However, the so-called screen door effect (being able to see the gaps between sub-pixels) is not completely removed. If you focus hard on it, you will see it. But if you don’t try to actively look for it, you will probably not notice. At any rate, the image is sharper than with the HTC and Oculus products. At this resolution you can read text on the screen. But it is still not good enough for small text. Field of view is 100° for WMR Ultra 90° for standard WMR.

The headset has both HDMI 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 connectivity. When using 1.4, the refresh rate is 60Hz. When using HDMI 2.0, it is 90 Hz. Either way, there is no flicker and no feeling of tired eyes that derives from flickering images.

Acer Windows Mixed Reality headset fresnal lenses

Acer mixed reality headset inside view

The display is kept in focus by two round Fresnel lenses. Unfortunately, unlike most headsets on the market (including many of the cheap ones) you can’t change the interpupillary distance (IPD). It is fixed at 63mm. But Acer uses a software system that recreate the manual adjustment between 59mm and 67mm. This is enough for many people, but not all. I won’t even say most. (Let the buyer beware!)

Although it is not standalone (in the sense that it does still have to be tethered to a computer by a cable) it does not require any towers or lighthouses for tracking. Instead, all tracking is done by that well-established triumvirate of Gyroscope, Accelerometer and (in some cases) Magnetometer. There are also two tracking cameras built into the headset to assist with “inside out” tracking. Finally, there is an IR sensor for tracking the wand controllers.

This camera is black and white, in accordance with its limited purpose. The camera does not show what is going on outside unfortunately. If they did then the headset would be able to mimic the transparency of augmented reality glasses. Then it really would be a mixed reality headset. But as I said above, this isn’t true mixed reality, just virtual reality by another name.

Acer mixed reality  headset

A view from above - the Acer mixed reality headset

The whole thing comes bundled with two controllers and a 4-meter (13+ foot) cable. That’s more than long enough to allow you a fair degree of freedom of movement. Cable-free would have been nice. But VR requires that a large amount of data must be sent to the headset. Bluetooth probably wouldn’t have the bandwidth. WiFi might, but with wireless there’s that latency problem. And with VR, low latency is crucial. Otherwise you end up with dropped frames, picture freezing and that dizzy feeling. So cable it is!

In the setup process, you start off my aiming the headset at the computer and select Trace. From this starting position (and subject to the limits of the cable) you map out your play area by moving the headset around, making off the perimeter of the area in which you will be using it.

In action, you get a high degree of freedom of movement and six degrees of freedom. The gyroscope can track head orientation (like the pitch, roll and yaw of airplanes). The accelerometer can track forward/backward, left/right, up/down. In theory, this should give you a bigger play area than a headset that has to be monitored from the outside. However, you are still constrained by that cable. (Elsewhere on this site we review
cable management systems and another system for cable management.)

Like the best headsets on the market, the Acer has a proximity sensor that can detect when you put it on. And when this happens, it activates the display.

Acer mixed Reality with a sting in the tail

Acer Mixed Reality with a sting in the tail

The headstrap is mechanical and has a moisture-proof padded section for the forehead. At the back of the strap is a blue dial that can be used to tighten the strap, I say tighten rather than tighten or loosen, because the tightening process is like a ratchet mechanism, that locks in place behind the turning of the dial. If you tighten it too much, you would actually have to take it off to loosen it again. Ideally, they should have provided a release mechanism like the Sony PlayStation VR has.

On the other hand, if you need to merely see something outside the headset, you don’t need to take it off. You can simply flip up the visor. This is a good design feature, as you never know when there might be something going on in the real world that you have to attend to. However, anything with moving parts is subject to wear and tear, and so this flip-up/flip-down visor could be a potential point of failure. In fact, it actually felt rather weak and “plasticky” for want of a better term. That is not to deny that it is useful. But it could be made better. I also found that when closed, the visor did not let light in. However, it is possible that if the user has a small face, the outside light might not be completely kept out.

 From the point of view of comfort, I was impressed. Notwithstanding our concerns about the ratchet mechanism on the strap, I felt at ease inside the headset. It is lighter than the Rift and much lighter than the Vive. In fact, it weighed less than a pound. This might be because it is quite small. In size as well as in weight, it has advantages over the bulkier Vive and Rift.

Acer Windows Mixed reality

Acer Mixed Reality Headset with Audio Jack

I haven’t yet mentioned the audio. These headsets don’t have headphones, only the standard 3.5mm audio input for plugging in your own earphones or headphones.

I also haven’t mentioned the controllers. These are basically the same across the Windows Mixed Reality range with only the label differing. They are incredibly easy to set up. Just put in the batteries, pair them with the PC and you’re all set to go. However, you might like to get rechargeable batteries and keep one set charged (or charging) while you’re using the other.

The headset is certainly good value for money. It is fun to play with (or work with) and comfortable to wear. It is designed for Windows and is Steam VR compatible. With Revive, it can also run Oculus Rift software. So there is no shortage of content.

VERDICT: A good virtual reality product (yes Virtual, not mixed) with a couple of minor weaknesses..

Dell - Visor

Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality headset

The Dell Visor

The Dell Visor has that white glossy finish that we associate with Apple and before that with 2001: A Space odyssey. In other words, that space-age futuristic look. But headsets are not All about aesthetics. So let’s take a look at the functionality.

It has HDMI 2.0 video input, USB 3.0 and the standard 3.5mm input for plugging in headphones, which again, do not come bundled with it. You have to buy your own.

Like the Acer it has a flip-up/flip-down visor, so you can take a break from virtual reality and return to the real world briefly without having to take off the headset altogether. Like others in the range it doesn’t have an over-the-head strap. It has a band that surrounds the head that can be tightened with a small wheel at the back to just the right amount to stay secure. And once in place, it has a nicely balanced feeling about it.

Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality headset

Dell Visor - inside view

You can even wear it with glasses. And the sides are cushioned with padded foam, protecting the glasses. As with Acer and others in the WMR range, there is no mechanical control to vary the interpupillary distance, only a software calibration. However, not expect to be prompted about this in the set-up process.

Notwithstanding that minor gripe, the Dell Visor feels good. It is well-ventilated and stays cool. Thus, you can play highly energetic games without sweating, without steaming up the lenses and without the headset itself overheating. This is achieved - or at least assisted - by air channels on either side of the noses. And because of the way it sits firmly on the head, there is no uncomfortable pressure on the nose.

The resolution is the same as the Acer (1440 x 1440 per eye). Also, like the Acer, and the HP below, Field of View is 100° for Windows Mixed Reality Ultra apps and computer, 90° with regular a Windows Mixed Reality computer. Similarly, for Ultra, the refresh rate is 90 Hz, for regular WMR it is 60 Hz.

frontal view of the Dell Windows Mixed Reality headset

A frontal view of the Dell WMR headset

Also, like the Acer it doesn’t have any lighthouses or base stations for the kind of outside-in tracking used by the Vive and Rift. Instead - like all the Windows Mixed Reality headsets - it relies on inside out tracking. This is achieved by the two monochrome tracking cameras on the front of the headset headset and the combination of gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer. All of this gives you six degrees of freedom. But, unlike the Acer, it does not have a proximity sensor.

The handheld controllers are versatile and comprehensive, including a thumb stick, touchpad, trigger button, grab button, windows button, menu button, pairing button. The problem is that if you move the controllers out of sight of the tracking cameras, the system doesn’t know what’s going on. However, Dell have built in a clever solution for this. The software actually predicts where your arms are likely to be based on how they were moving when they vanished from the cameras. The algorithm calculates where they ought to be based on the speed and direction in space when they went out of view.

Of course, if they stay out of sight of the cameras for too long, the system gets confused and its predictions - or rather guesses - become less accurate. But all in all, it is a pretty clever workaround and in most cases is good enough. When you consider what a pain in backside base stations and lighthouses are, this is actually quite a good solution. After all, how often do you put your hands behind your back? Especially when you’re fighting off zombies or aliens.

Dell Visor with a controller

Dell Visor with a controller

And besides that, it is clear that Microsoft wants to get away from the gaming-only world of the Vive and Rift and move VR into such useful fields as office business, and education.

At this resolution, the image is sharper and clearer than the Rift or Vive, but if you concentrate hard enough you can see a screen door effect in which individual pixels become visible. But if you’re not looking for it, you won’t notice it.

As with the rest of the range (except the Samsung), the Dell visor doesn’t have built in headphones, so you have to supply your own. This decision was probably taken because many people already have a favorite set of headphones. But the downside is that if your favorite headphones happen to be large or bulky, then you may find them competing with the headset for space.

VERDICT: Best aesthetic design. Would be our joint favorite, but for the lack of hardware IPD calibration and proximity sensor.

HP - Mixed Reality Headset and Controllers

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset

The first thing we noticed about this headset is that whereas the Acer looks a bit like the Sony PSVR and the Dell looks almost Apple-like (or space-age), the HP and Lenovo look remarkably like each other and they - together with the Samsung - are more conventional in their appearance. Or to put it another way: the HP, Lenovo and Samsung don’t look too different from the Vive and Rift.

The HP can connect to any PC with Windows Mixed Reality or Windows Mixed Reality Ultra. With the latter you get a better field of view (100° - as distinct from 90° with regular Windows Mixed Reality).

It can connect via either HDMI or the more powerful VESA Display Port. Please note that Display Port 1.2 can support both the 60 Hz (Windows Mixed Reality) and 90Hz (Windows Mixed Reality Ultra) refresh rates. But with HDMI you need HDMI 2.0 for 90 Hz or HDMI 1.4 for the 60 Hz. The headset comes with a combined USB-HDMI cable that splits at the end into its respective components.

Technically, the HP headset has the same specs as all but one of the others in the range. 1440 x 1440 per eye, choice of 60 Hz or 90Hz refresh (depending on whether the app and hardware are WMR Ultra or just plain old WMR), 3.5 mm combo jack for external headphones. Tracking by gyroscope, accelerometer and the tracking cameras. There is a proximity sensor so that it knows when you are wearing the headset.

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset with cable

The HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset with cable

The HP fits around the head like the Dell and tightens with the same wheel at the back. The visor portion can be flipped up and down like the Dell. This has been compared to a welder’s face mask. One of the problems is that HP have used quite a lot of padding on the face mask. Far from preventing or absorbing sweat, this seems to encourage the buildup of sweat and causes condensation and fogging up. This is in complete contrast to the Dell which is well-ventilated.

Another problem is that the HP is quite heavy, weighing almost twice as much as the Acer. This may not be a problem for everyone, in fact it means that the headset is sturdy. But some people find it easier to forget that they are wearing a headset if it is light. On the other hand, the headset is big enough to accommodate glasses, without having to worry about the glasses bumping against the lenses of the headset.

Setting up the headset is straightforward, though if you want to use it with SteamVR there are a few extra steps. Unlike the more expensive headsets with outside-in tracking, you are less restricted in your play space - although you are still limited to the length of the cable. The long cable is 4 meters (just over 13 feet), the same as the Acer and Dell.

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset and controllers

HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset and controllers

As with the other Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the system can lose track of the controllers when they go out of view of the headset. I stress “of the headset” because the tracking cameras are mounted on the front corners of the headset, so even if you cannot see the controllers, as long as they are within “sight” of the tracking cameras, you can play on as normal.

In practice, the HP headset is not as accurate or as quick to respond as a the Vive or Rift. But it is pretty good, and, in any case, the slightly slower responsiveness and accuracy is more than offset by the higher resolution.

We had some issues running SteamVR, such as video memory being hogged unnecessarily by the virtual room from which mixed reality apps are launched when you put the headset on. However, you can bypass this and launch SteamVR directly. The virtual room (or "cliff house" as they call it) will run in the background but will hog less video memory.

VERDICT: Worked okay, but the weight made it feel awkward.

Lenovo Explorer Bundle

Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Lenovo Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Although all the Windows Mixed Reality headsets have to comply with a minimum spec set by Microsoft, some of them have higher specs than the minimum. Such is the case with the Lenovo Explorer headset. Instead of the WMR standard 100° Field of View, you get 110°. The actual resolution is the same as the other: 1440 x 1440 per eye. As with the others, this is still not enough to completely eliminate the screen door effect - that enables you to discern the individual pixels. But again, that only happens if you are looking for it. If you forget about it, it goes away.

The front cameras track the controllers, like the others in the WMR range and as long as the controllers don’t disappear from view of the cameras, your playing can continue uninterrupted. In fact playing with the Lenovo Explorer went quite smoothly most of the time. And it must be stressed that while this and other WMR headsets sometimes have problems tracking the controllers, the head tracking is perfect and not in any way hampered by the lack of base stations. This is true of both this headset and the others in the range.

Thus, as with the others in the WMR range, you get better resolution and almost as good tracking for a substantially lower lost than the Vive or Rift. To some VR purists, the limitations to the tracking are a dealbreaker. For others, the problem is negligible. It depends what and how you play. Indeed, for some, it is the price that is the deal breaker. And it is quite possible that those who have been holding off buying a virtual reality headset until now, might just take the plunge because of the low prices on these headsets (except the Samsung).

Lenovo Mkixed Reality Headset and controller

Lenovo and controller

Another advantage to the inside out approach of WMR over the base station method used by Vive and Rift is that it’s almost plug and play, with virtually no set up. You plug it in, trace out your play area by moving the headset and that’s it.

The batteries on the controllers have a reasonable life, but if you play a lot you would be well advised to get rechargeable batteries and a charger. By keeping a spare set permanently charged, you can ensure that your gaming experience is not subjected to anything more than a minimal interruption.

On the comfort side, the results are mixed. It is light, weighing less than a pound (380 grams in fact). Having said that, it might not be big enough for everyone. After all some people have bigger heads than others. The padding around the nose is quite tight. This is good for keeping out the light, but bad news for people with big noses, at times feeling almost suffocating. This also means that the ventilation if not great and it tends to overheat, causing sweating. Finally - and again, a common negative feature across the range - there is no mechanical adjustment for inter-pupillary distance, just the rather limited software adjustment.

 And like the others, it has that flip-up/flip-down feature that makes it possible to return to the real world briefly, without having to take the headset off and put it back on again.

VERDICT: Solid spec, but mixed results on the comfort side.

Samsung HMD Odyssey

Samsung Odyssey Windows Mixed Reality headset

Samsung Odyssey headset

Finally, we arrive at the king of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Samsung haven’t allowed Microsoft’s specs to hold them back to the minimum requirements. Far from it. They have gone for the gold with the Odyssey. In the process, they have made the most expensive of the WMR headsets. So what do they have to show for it?

First of all, other headsets in the range have taken advantage of the minimum requirements, to give the user flexibility by allowing them to use their own earphones or headphones.  But Samsung have taken off in a different direction. They have chosen instead to aim for the best user experience by providing a set of good quality built-in AKG “premium” headphones.

These boast “360-degree spatial sound” - which means that they can create sounds coming at you from different sides and angles. So, if, for example, the game calls for a helicopter approaching from behind you and then flying overhead and landing in front of you, the headphones will recreate this experience. The headphones are hinged rotationally, so that they can be flipped down 90° from parallel to the headband to a perpendicular position such that they cover the ears.

The headset also includes an integrated microphone array that you can use to talk to Cortana, the Windows 10, voice-activated smart assistant.

Samsung Odyssey controllers

Samsung Odyssey controllers

On the other hand, Samsung seem to have missed some other opportunities for premium enhancements over and above the minimal spec. For example, the controllers use the same AA batteries as the other WMR headsets, instead of being rechargeable. Of course, the owner could get their own rechargeable AA batteries - and even keep a spare set charged at all times as we recommend - but Samsung missed a trick by not being proactive about this.

In game play, the Odyssey is at least as good as any of the others, working best if the tracking cameras are able to assist the gyroscope and accelerometer. That calls for the play area to be at least moderately well-lit and for there to be some level of detail. If you were playing in an empty hall, this might be a problem. But in practice it is unlikely to be as most homes have some defining detail. Even floor tiles or grained floorboards will help.

This means that in most situations, the Odyssey feels no less responsive than a Vive or Rift. And while a problem can arise if the controllers drop out of view of the cameras in the headset, you can at least turn round with the controllers and keep them (and yourself) in play.

Another point in favor of the Odyssey is the graphics. Samsung have opted for an AMOLED display instead of the LCD displays that the other headsets in the range have chosen. These are sharper and more responsive to rapid change than the LCDs. Also, Samsung has given the headset a resolution of 1440 x 1600 per eye, instead of the 1440 x 1440 of the others.

Samsung Odyssey side viee Windows mixed reality

Samsung Odyssey in profile

One thing the Odyssey lacks is the flip-up/flip-down feature of the other headsets. In that respect, the Odyssey is more like the Vive or Rift. After experiencing the flip feature, it was hard to adapt to no having it with the Odyssey. It is a useful feature. And one feels almost deprived without it.

Visually, the Odyssey is close to the Rift or Vive than say the Acer, which likes the Sony PSVR or the Dell which looks the most futuristic. That means, it has a solid, sturdy look about it. It is also the second heaviest of the headsets in the WMR range, weighing in a hefty 650 grams. The Odyssey is more like the Vive and Rift than the other WMR headsets in another respect too: it has a hardware adjustment for interpupillary distance. Whereas the other WMRs reviewed here are limited to a fixed physical 63mm IPD with a 4mm “software” calibration in either direction (for an effective 59-67mm), the Odyssey can be physically varied between 60mm and 72mm. This makes allowances for larger heads in the way that other WMR headsets do not.

The question of value for money for this headset is hard to answer, because the prices of these headsets are constantly changing (and falling).

VERDICT: Our Choice. Lack of a flip visor is more than offset by higher-resolution, built-in headphones and hardware IPD control.

February 12, 2018

Virtual reality prepares long-term prisoners for release

Colorado Prisoner using VR for early release preparation

One of the great problems with long-term prisoners coming to the end of their sentences is how to prepare them for release into society.


The problem is two-fold. Firstly, long-term prisoners tend to become “institutionalized”. That is, they learn to blindly follow the rules, telling them when to eat, where to go to get their food, where to go and what work to do. They do not have the problem of finding a job, attending an interview, managing a budget or choosing where to buy what. Even the decision of what to wear is made for them.

And this extends to things like doing the laundry. Working in the prison laundry is very different from doing personal laundry in an American laundromat or a British laundrette.

And because some prisoners are sent to prison early in life, in many cases they never developed these skills in the first place. In America, juveniles accused of serious offences can be tried as adults.

The second problem is that the developed world is changing at a frenetic pace, so that the way we live and function changes rapidly in as little as a few years. A prisoner incarcerated in 1994 may just about know about mobile phones and the beginnings of the internet, but they will have no experience of smart phones, the worldwide web, search engines or internet shopping. A prisoner incarcerated in 1980 may just about remember cash machines in the big cities, but will probably know nothing about contactless payment.

But the problem is further compounded by yet another problem: some prisoners were never expecting to be released.

Colorado prisoner virtual reality (VR) early release

Prisoner Leroy Gardenhire at Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City using VR to simulate doing laundry in a laundromat. (Meredith Turk/CPR News)

All that changed, however, in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miller v. California that life without parole sentences for juveniles were a “cruel and unusual punishment” in contravention of the 8th amendment, even in cases of murder. (The previous case of Graham v. Florida (2010) held the same, but for crimes falling short of murder. But the clincher was the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana (US Supreme Court, 2016) that held that the ruling in Miller v. California must be applied retroactively.

The rulings did not guarantee automatic release. It only required that the sentences must be reviewed by a judge. Different states responded differently, but the state of Colorado responded proactively at the legislative level by enacting a law in 2016 that Juveniles who have served 20-25 years of their sentence can be released if they successfully complete a three-year re-entry program.

Colorado is now building the curriculum for that program. The skills that prisoners need for living in the outside world have to be taught, whether it is by books, videos or supervised day-release. But in the Colorado program a new technique is being added to the mix: virtual reality.

This technology enables them to learn not only about the practical side of living life on the outside, but also how to handle the kind of confrontational situations that might make them angry.

Colorado prisoner release virtual reality VR

The pre-release training program using VR (CPR News Meredith Turk)

Virtual reality prisoner release comes to the rescue

“We need to learn how to respond when someone says, ‘You’re a murderer,” says Eric Davis. a 49-year-old who was sentenced to 40 years to life for murder, when he was 17. He can petition for re-sentencing in 2021.

The first facility to introduce the program with virtual reality is the Fremont Correctional Facility (FCF) in the East Canon prison complex in Fremont County, east of Canon City. FCF houses many of Colorado’s convicted sex offenders (85% of the facility’s population) and it is also one of the few prisons in the state to offer a sex offender treatment program.

Currently, nine prisoners at FCF are enrolled in the re-entry program. Their crimes include second degree and felony murder and were committed when they were juveniles. Some were as young as 15 at the time. They were tried and sentenced as adult and have been living in adult prisons ever since being convicted. Most of them are now in their late thirties or early forties.

The program is overseen by Melissa Smith of the Colorado Department of Corrections. She says that while they were conducting research on how to implement the re-entry program, they came across the idea of using virtual reality. She added that the State of Pennsylvania was also experimenting with virtual reality for prisoners, although in a somewhat different way.

The first prisoner to be released in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under this program, is Daniel Peters, who had been in prison for 34 years, since age of 17. His sentence had been life imprisonment, but that changed with the Miller and Graham rulings. He is one of some 295 Philadelphia inmates to be released under these rulings.

As part of his preparation for release, Peters was transferred to a halfway house in the Callowhill neighborhood on 24 June, 2016. However even this was a daunting experience. But Peters was prepared for the move by being given a virtual reality tour of the facility, so he would know what to expect.

Both these uses of virtual reality in preparing long-term prisoners for release are in their early stages.

February 8, 2018

Samsung Gear VR w/Controller (2017) – Latest Edition

Gear VR

The Samsung Gear VR has gone through several iterations. This is the latest and it includes Samsung PhoneCast - designed for use with Samsung Galaxy phones. (However, note that if you have the Galaxy 8, you must get the particular version of the headset designed for that model).

With phones

Designed for Samsung phones

The Gear VR is built for use with Oculus software, so you need the Oculus app download and account to get the games that will run on it.

Bear in mind that Gear VR is something of a bridge between the low-end phone housing VR headsets and the high-end proprietary VR headsets: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony PlayStation VR. The Gear VR is unique in having features of both. It is based on the phone housing concept, but it runs Oculus games. Unlike the big boys, it is untethered and  a true standalone. It needs no expensive and bulky computer hardware to run. It also neither has nor needs any lighthouses or towers to track its position.

Gear VR 6

Sheer elegance!

This has several downsides. For a start, the image quality is limited by the resolution of the phone. Secondly, the head tracking is limited to 3 degrees of freedom, rather than the 6 of the Rift and Vive. This means that while it can follow your head as it turns, leans or moves forward and back, it cannot track as you move forward and backward, left and right or up and down.

There may also be a problem of latency, depending on how good the phone is - and how much "stuff" it has running in the background.

Only as good as the phone

As good as the phone

On the other hand, it has the benefit of giving you access not only to Oculus games but also the ability to use Android apps in a virtual reality environment. It also comes with a small and handy remote control that is good enough for most games - although some Oculus games require a bluetooth gamepad, which is one point on the downside, but hardly a deal breaker.

Inside the headset

Inside the headset

Depending on the resolution of the phone screen, you may find that individual pixels are sometimes visible. But the visual quality, was on the whole very good for a headset in this price range. Also, it is light and very comfortable to wear.

The unit has a USB C-type port at the bottom, so it is possible to charge the phone without removing it from the headset.

VERDICT: A perfect product for the best of both worlds!

February 8, 2018

Pansonite 3D VR Headset Virtual Reality Glasses (without headset)

Pansonite headset

This is the Pansonite headset without the remote control. As such everything said about it already applies, except regarding the remote.

It aims for comfort by using leather and an elastic foam to give it just the right amount of “give” and prevent it from becoming too sweaty. The leather allows your skin to breathe and reduces not only the sweating per se, but also the clouding up of the lenses caused by evaporating sweat. The sponge distributes the weight and ensures that the headset has just the right amount of grip to avoid slipping without feeling too tight and suffocating. The sponge also makes the headset more flexible and accommodating to different shapes of face. The nose area is also quite deep, thus increasing support in the nasal area by greater weight distribution.

Weight distribution is further enhanced by the T-shaped headband which greatly adds to support and plays a major role in distributing the weight evenly.

The optics are very good, although ultimately constrained by the resolution and visual qualities of the display on your phone. The Pansonite has a 120 degree field of view - somewhat more than the Oculus Rift or HTV Vive - and the lenses are PMMA HD aspheric.

A comfortable fit

The makers have packed a lot into this headset, including a button for video/music play, a volume control and a control for pausing the action and answering incoming calls. It has controls for varying the distance between the pupils of your eyes and the focal length. 

Other clever features include excellent ventilation to prevent the phone from overheating. The makers have clearly put a lot of thought into this design, having spent two years on R & D to design, develop and fine-tune the product to customer needs.

The Pansonite fits most smartphones easily, including, Android phones and iPhones. Basically any smart phone with a screen size within 4.0 - 6.0 inches is compatible. Thus, the iPhone 5/SE/6/6s/7/7 plus, Samsung S5, S6, S6 edge, S7,S7 edge, Note 4, 5; LG G3, G4, G5, G6, V10, V20; Nexus 5, 6P etc are all compatible with the Pansonite. The phone housing is also padded to protect the phone from moving around.

One word of caution, regarding the Amazon reviews. For some reason, on Amazon.com, the reviews of this product have become convoluted with reviews of various other products, including a griddle, a tablet cover and a luxury lingerie bag! If you happen to chance upon such reviews, please just ignore them. This product is a phone-housing virtual reality headset, not a piece of kitchen equipment or a tablet cover - let alone bag for Victoria's innumerable secrets!

VERDICT: An excellent entry-level headset at a good price. 

February 7, 2018

Virtual Reality finds its way into the classroom – in a high poverty district

Susan Dunning and student

People have been talking about using Virtual Reality as a teaching aid in the classroom for a long time, but not it is finally being trialed in a high-poverty educational district in Pennsylvania.

An article by Eleanor Chute in the Hechinger Report, highlights the use of Virtual Reality to broaden the minds of junior highers in the Cornell School District of Coraopolis Pennsylvania. The article gives the example of Jada Jenkins, an eighth grader who was transported into the very different world of a forest by the VR headset.

In a scenario that might have come straight out of a James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Jada and her classmates were given their own avatars and were able to wander around the virtual forest and find each other. Rather than actually walking around, they moved their avatars with hand-held controllers. This meant they could interact in the virtual forest without the risk of bumping into each other.

Voyage 2

People in a forest

But this was only the beginning. After a period of acclimatization, Jada and the other students were assigned to teams and sent off on a scavenger hunt. They had to solve clues to win. For example, Chute gives the example that they had to identify which omnivore might forage for nearby plants or animals after awakening from hibernation. In this case, the answer was a black bear and the winning team could plant their flag to claim victory.

Korzeniowsky-Julian-1

Julian Korzeniowsky

The project, called Voyage, was developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University. Julian Korzeniowsky, a graduate student who worked on the project, describes VR as:

 “another tool teachers can use to hopefully increase the learning gains of their students through engagement.”

In the Voyage “game” - if one can call it that - the students also hear realistic sounds like flowing water or animals in the distance.

The immersive realism was a high motivating factor. It turned learning into fun - always a good way to hold children’s attention.

This is one the strengths of Virtual Reality. It can bring situations to life in a way that books or even TV and movies can’t. But at the same time it is cheaper than field trips. And when the place is a forest with black bears, it is also a lot safer! Other students have witnessed 3D scenes in Syrian refugee camps, according to the Hechinger Report article. This has broadened their horizons without putting them in danger. Other VR scenarios can give students a glimpse into history, re-enacted in three dimensions.

Kristopher Hupp, director of technology and instructional innovation in the Cornell School District explained the reasoning behind the project: “Virtual reality allows students to explore places and structures in a way that is as close to real life as possible, without actually leaving our campus.”

Meanwhile, a company called Schell Games founded and headed by Jesse Schell, professor of the practice of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University is developing a virtual chemistry lab. The concept has been around for decades. The classic example was the experiment that “blows up the lab” and teaches the students about the dangers of explosives without actually killing them. But doing it on a computer screen was never quite the same as doing it in 3D as if you are actually there in the lab, mixing the chemicals and heating them up over the bunsen burner.

Schell believes that the main value of VR is in helping students to visualize, rather than leave it to the imagination alone. As to the fact that VR has not yet made major inroads into the classroom, Schell compares this to the initial resistance to computers, in the eyes of educators “between 1978 and 1990.”

Susan Dunning and others

Susan Dunning and others

These days, of course, computers are no longer as expensive as they were up till the mid-eighties. And their value as educational tools is beyond dispute.

Cornell School District has been described as a “high poverty” area. But they were helped out by a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a regional public school service agency. This grant enabled them to buy 15 Google Daydream headsets, a similar number of Mattel View Master VR viewers and also 15 Google Pixel phones. The Daydream headsets were for the older students, while the younger ones got the Mattel View Masters.

In order to keep an eye on the situation, the teachers don’t wear headsets, but use iPads to monitor what the students are seeing. But it doesn’t stop there. The district has bought two 360-degree still cameras to enable the teachers to develop their own content.

Google-Daydream

Google-Daydream

It was in fact only after the school district bought the VR hardware - without a specific project in mind - that Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center got involved. As the Voyage blog explains:

The idea started with a spark from Sharan [Shodhan]. He heard that the Cornell School, a high school in the Pittsburgh area, acquired a bunch of Google Daydreams and Pixels, but didn’t really have anything to do with them. Sharan wanted to combine the power of VR (great immersion, but somewhat isolating) with the power of the classroom (collaborating with your friends and working with the teachers). This turned into the idea to create a multiplayer VR experience for the classroom that we will integrate into the Cornell School at the end of the semester.

Thereafter the project was developed by the Carnegie-Mellon team, with feedback from the teachers and students at the school. The results were impressive. While the students found the app “cool” the teachers noticed that it was also a very effective learning tool. As history teacher Andrew Erwin said: “But with virtual reality, even with one try, I could tell that there is some educational value. The kids do remember facts better when they use virtual reality.”

So far, the team have merely been testing the waters. But as it’s now finding its way into the classroom, it’s only a matter of time before we see a whole lot more of it.

February 2, 2018

SARLAR 3D VR Headset

Salar 3D

This must rate as one of the cheapest VR headsets on the market. It has the usual Velcro straps, including an overhead T-strap to distribute the weight. The foam padding around the eyes, blocks of the light from outside and ensures a good fit. It is also removable and can be replaced when it has done its time.

Movable lenses

Movable lenses

The lenses can be moved closer or further apart to accommodate differences in head size and distance between the eyes. It also has an adjustable focal length for users who are short-sighted, up to 600-degree myopia. For those whose myopia is worse than this, the makers claim that you can wear glasses with it. This is technically true, however we found it to be rather uncomfortable wearing glasses with it

With glasses

With glasses

In practice, it’s like watching a movie from the middle of a cinema.

Perhaps one of the most interesting thing is the detachable figure-8-shaped “glare shield” that fits into the phone housing section. It is designed to block out light and increase the immersive feeling, when playing VR games. When merely watching a movie, the makers recommend removing the glare shield.

Glare shield

Glare shield

The phone housing section also incorporates spring-loaded, sliding bars to secure smaller phones that might otherwise move around. Indeed, this headset can accommodate smartphones with screens from 4 to 6.2 inches.

Phone housing

Phone housing

However, whilst the makers did an admirable effort to make an ultra-low-cost headset, they seem to have compromised in a rather basic respect. That is, the headset has no button to start or stop the games or other apps. You have to actually start the game with the phone out, start the app and then put the phone in the headset. This is, to put it mildly, rather inconvenient.

Nice design, but...

Nice design, but...

For this reason, we cannot really recommend this unit, except as a very basic starter, if you want to dip your toes into the water of VR and find out what it’s all about. At least it is cheap, so the financial commitment is small. But caveat emptor: you get what you pay for.

VERDICT: Entry level only, buy with low expectations.

February 1, 2018

Oxford team wins government award to develop VR to treat mental patients

Woman on floor

Following on from our recent report about augmented reality being used to help surgeons at St Mary’s Hospital perform reconstructive surgery on lower limbs, bestvr.tech can now report that virtual reality is being trialed by the NHS on mental health patients.

The trial aims to address the problems that psychiatric patients have in dealing with day-to-day situations. Patients will wear a virtual reality headset and in a series of sessions lasting between 20 and 30 minutes will be guided through a series of tasks and situations that to a normal person would be easy enough to handle, but that can pose problems to those with mental health problems.

But the patients won’t be struggling blindly through the sessions. They will have a VR coach who will guide them through the simulation.

Prof Daniel Freeman

Prof Daniel Freeman


The project was developed by clinical psychologist Professor Daniel Freeman of Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

“Patient’s often find it easier to do this work in the virtual world, and enjoy using our VR applications," Professor Freeman explains.

“But the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world.”

Human interaction

Human interaction

The visual design of the VR therapy is being led by Jonathan West of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art. He explains enthusiastically:

This is such a fantastic opportunity to involve patients in the design of new and exciting VR therapies. It brings together a great team of designers, patients, psychologists, and computer scientists to work towards something with huge potential for impact.

Of the treatment technology itself, Professor Freeman, explained:

Our new treatment is automated – the virtual coach leads the therapy – and it uses inexpensive VR kit, so it has the potential for widespread use in the NHS. We’re inspired by the opportunity VR provides to increase dramatically the number of people who can access the most effective psychological therapies.

Realizing this ambition will require much work, but our amazing team of patients, NHS staff, researchers, and designers has all the capabilities to achieve it. Over the next three years this major investment should lead to real and positive change in services for patients.

The project consists of a design phase, a multi-center clinical trial, and then the creation of a road map for the treatment. The design phase is to test the treatment for ease of use and to make sure that it can hold the patient’s attention and is fine-tuned to suit their needs. The multi-center clinical trial is designed to verify that the use of this virtual reality approach is beneficial to patients. The road map is to ensure a smooth roll out of the treatment across the country.

The project is being funded by a £4 million grant awarded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) announced by Lord O’Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Health and Social Care, at the MQ Mental Health Science Meeting 2018 on February the 1st. In his announcement, Lord O’Shaughnessy stated:

Lord_O_Shaughnessy

Lord O'Shaughnessy

I’d like to offer my congratulations to the winners of this award. We know that tackling the increasingly complex health challenges we face means harnessing the potential of new technology.  Through the NIHR, we spend £1bn per year bringing great British innovations into the NHS for the benefit of patients.

martin hunt

Martin Hunt


To win this award, the Oxford team faced stiff competition from other research teams from all over the UK in a winner-takes-all competition set up last year by the NIHR.

A similar competition has been launched this year.

In the words of Martin Hunt, director of the NIHR i4i program:

I am delighted we have been able to attract and support such an ambitious, potentially transformational project, from a world class team.... I hope that the 2018 competition attracts a similar caliber of applications to enable us to support the translation of more ground-breaking technologies, for the benefit of people living with mental health conditions

The Oxford project was also praised by Dr Jennifer Martin of the NIHR MindTech MedTech Co-operative:

Jen Martin

Jen Martin

"We believe that this collaborative approach will help us to develop a VR treatment that is enjoyable and easy to use, and that will be taken up across the NHS so that as many people as possible can benefit."

Now it is up to the Oxford team to deliver the results that may transform mental health treatment in Britain.

February 1, 2018

Microsoft HoloLens to assist surgeons

Doctors using AR to help surgery

Imagine surgeons doing an operation in which they see through opaque areas of the body as if they had X-ray eyes. Now imagine that these X-ray eyes can see not only bone, but also soft tissue.

To some extent this happens already when antenatal doctors do an amniotic probe, watching the position of the needle in the womb via an ultrasound scan. But they are normally looking at a monitor. This involves looking up and down - or possibly sideways.

But what if, instead, they could keep their eyes on the patient while seeing a superimposed image of what is going on inside the patient’s body, using augmented reality glasses or visors?

This is precisely what surgeons at Imperial College, London have been experimenting with. Using the Microsoft HoloLens, they have been conducting trials in which surgeons doing reconstructive surgery on lower limbs are able to see the positions of bones and blood vessels via CT scans overlaid against the area that they were operating on.

Leg surgery

Leg surgery

The team of surgeons were trying out the new technology at St Mary’s Hospital, which is attached to Imperial College. The most difficult part of reconstructive surgery on limbs is reconnecting blood vessels and sometimes bones. In many cases, the surgeons are effectively working blind, or at least with a highly restricted view. CT scans can give them the extra information they need, but the problem of looking in two directions makes the task difficult. The augmented overlay approach, solves this problem neatly and effectively.

The method was tested on five patients, including a middle-aged man with leg injuries from a road accident and an 85-year-old woman with compound fractures of the ankle, including a protruding bone that had pierced the skin.

The CT scans did not take place in real-time while the surgery was being performed. Instead, the patients went through CT scans beforehand to map out the positions of bones and blood vessels, as well as connective tissue, muscle and fat. The CT scans were then segmented, with the bones, blood vessels, muscle and fat converted into polygonal models and rendered as digital images in a format compatible with the HoloLens. These images were then projected onto the HoloLens visor, so that the surgeons could see them as an overlay against the actual injured limb.

CT Scans

CT Scans

The European radiology Experimental journal published the results of the study. In the abstract they started:

Intraoperatively, the models were registered manually to their respective subjects by the operating surgeon using a combination of tracked hand gestures and voice commands; AR was used to aid navigation and accurate dissection. Identification of the subsurface location of vascular perforators through AR overlay was compared to the positions obtained by audible Doppler ultrasound. Through a preliminary HoloLens-assisted case series, the operating surgeon was able to demonstrate precise and efficient localisation of perforating vessels.
[https://eurradiolexp.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41747-017-0033-2]

Mapping the anatomy

Mapping the anatomy

The study acknowledges that: “One limitation is that presently a technical assistant is required initially to help with preoperative data preparation and later in the operating theatre to assist with application launch and approximate spatial model positioning before involvement of the operating surgeon.”

The study concluded that: “The experience gained hitherto suggests that the techniques developed through this work are appropriate for reconstructive surgery applied to other areas of the body.”

SOURCE: Through the HoloLens™ looking glass: augmented reality for extremity reconstruction surgery using 3D vascular models with perforating vessels,
Philip Pratt, Matthew Ives, Graham Lawton, Jonathan Simmons, Nasko Radev, Liana Spyropoulou and Dimitri Amiras,
European Radiology Experimental20182:2, https://doi.org/10.1186/s41747-017-0033-2,
©  The Author(s) 2018