Tech Guide

I just tried Microsoft's new VR system, and it's like stepping into Windows

Key Points
  • Mixed reality is coming this year.
  • Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system will allow us to step into digital environments
  • You can work, watch movies and more, all in a virtual world with access to real Windows apps
  • It's lonely, but it might help increase some worker morale
Todd Haselton | CNBC

At about noon on Thursday, I lowered a headset over my eyes and, for the first time in my life, stepped into Microsoft Windows.

I was invited to attend an Acer event in New York where the company primarily discussed its VR and gaming ambitions. But I had one mission: to finally see what Microsoft's "mixed reality" experience is all about.

What the heck is mixed reality?


First, let's talk a bit about the differences between mixed reality, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Virtual reality is what Oculus and Facebook are doing, allowing users to step out of this world and into another one. Augmented reality overlays the real world with additional information — which is what Microsoft is doing with HoloLens. Mixed reality is more like virtual reality in that you can't see your actual surroundings, but a bit like HoloLens in that you can interact with Microsoft apps and move around a digital space.

I wasn't allowed to take any pictures of the experience, though I could snap photos of the headset. Here's what it was like.

An apartment in the sky

Todd Haselton | CNBC

When I lowered the headset, I was suddenly standing in what appeared to be a ritzy, open apartment in the sky. In real life, I was just standing in a demo area wearing a plastic headset tethered to a laptop.

A Microsoft representative handed me an Xbox One controller and told me to look around. Behind me was a large big screen TV hanging on the wall. Well, it looked like a TV, but in actuality it was a mixed reality version of Microsoft's video player software mounted on the wall, with a selection of clips to watch.

I could, if I didn't have a real 70-inch TV in real life, use this headset and sit and watch a movie here. This digital player also supported 360 videos, so when I played one, I was suddenly transported to a first-person view, flying down a ski slope and able to look around in a complete 360 degrees.

I was able to walk around my virtual reality apartment, too, visiting different displays on the walls. In what appeared to be a small sitting area, for example, were three other screens. I looked into the room, pressed a button on the Xbox controller, and was suddenly teleported. Here, I had one display showing the weather, another with Microsoft's Edge web browser, and yet a third digital monitor with access to email. It was a digital office of sorts, and I spent some time scrolling through NASA's website as if I was looking at a real computer screen.

But why?

Todd Haselton | CNBC

Why do we want to take a virtual trip into Windows 10? Microsoft sees this as the next big step for operating systems. Plus, you could save some serious dough working in a digital office instead of a real one.

I'd no longer need to buy three different monitors and a big screen display, for example, when I could simply buy a $300 Windows Mixed Reality headset and step into a world that already has all of that. The digital world I was in technically allows me to run any of the 20,000 universal windows apps that are already available, and the experience will run on most computers powered by Microsoft's latest Windows 10 Creator's Update software, which started rolling out this month.

At home, on a rainy Saturday, I could teleport myself into the apartment in the sky, sit at my virtual desk and write an article in Word. I could move to the digital couch and watch an MLB game, maybe, or travel to a 360 degree view of Peru, all without ever actually leaving my apartment.

I felt lonely

Todd Haselton | CNBC

There's something sad about this digital world. It's perfectly fine to spend the day at one's real desk, for example, and move to another real room to watch a game, maybe with a dog on your lap and your wife by your side. You don't get that here. You just have a virtual version of something that, perhaps, you wish you had in real life ... like that nice apartment in the sky.

On the other hand, mixed reality could be a huge improvement for office workers. Instead of sitting in a cubicle under flickering commercial lights and staring at a single monitor all day, a worker could be transported to a whole new world with entertainment, multiple displays and even some virtual sunlight.

That could be a game changer for boosting employee morale.

Coming this year

Todd Haselton | CNBC

This is the new reality. Microsoft's partners, including Acer and Lenovo, are going to start selling mixed reality headsets this year. They'll cost a fraction of the price of virtual reality, starting around $300, and won't require the beefy gaming computers that virtual reality does.

I'm not sure that office in the sky is for me. Maybe Microsoft needs to make different environments for its virtual version of Windows 10.

A cabin in the woods for a writer, maybe?