At the beginning of 2017, I wrote about what I thought might be the year’s most important virtual reality technology: tracking cameras that would work from inside, not outside, a VR headset. And the results weren’t great. Almost every inside-out tracking system I tried was uncomfortable, most of them were barely functional, and none of them seemed anywhere near as good as more traditional high-end headsets. It seemed like VR would have to take a step back before it could move forward. At the end of 2017, there’s still no inside-out headset that’s as polished as the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, or HTC Vive, which use external tracking systems. But Microsoft and Samsung have convinced me that one might be on the way.
The Samsung HMD Odyssey is one of five headsets based on Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality platform, and unlike the platform’s earliest wave of development kits, it comes bundled with Microsoft’s motion controllers. It works on computers running the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, as long as they meet the requirements that are posted here. The list price is $499, which is slightly less than the $599 Vive and more than the $399 Rift — making the Odyssey the most expensive of Microsoft’s partner headsets.
Like all Windows Mixed Reality headsets, the Odyssey tracks head and controller motion with two front-mounted cameras. You plug in the Odyssey’s USB and HDMI cables, then launch a “Mixed Reality Portal” built into the Creators Update. To draw a boundary, you just drag the headset around your available space. It detects visual features that it can use as reference points, then calculates your motion based on them. The process is easy compared to the Rift or Vive, because there’s no extra hardware to set up — you don’t need power outlets for tracking towers, platforms for cameras, extra USB ports, or any of the other accoutrements of a traditional VR room.
(“Windows Mixed Reality” refers to both Microsoft HoloLens, which adds virtual objects to the real world, and headsets like the Odyssey, which almost any other company would call “virtual reality.” This is stupid and confusing, so here, the term just refers to Microsoft’s VR headset platform, not its entire range of “mixed reality” products.)
A GREAT CORE EXPERIENCE IN A LESS-THAN-GREAT PACKAGE
My experience with earlier Windows Mixed Reality demos has been positive, and so far, the Odyssey meets my expectations. The headset requires a moderately lit room and some level of visual detail around the tracking area, i.e. furniture. I can’t say exactly how much detail is required, due to a lack of giant empty spaces in the Verge offices, but it’s easier to find a room with furniture than one with exactly the right furniture layout for external tracking device placement. The controllers feel as precise and responsive as the Rift’s or Vive’s, and usually reflect my hand movement well, using half-moon strips of LEDs as tracking marks.
The biggest problems I found were ones that plague externally tracked headsets as well. The controllers’ movement stalls if you put them directly behind your head or body, but that’s still far better than a two-camera Rift setup, which won’t let you turn around at all. Having people moving around you seems to throw off the tracking, but that also happens with the Rift and Vive — although I haven’t tried the headset in a densely populated area, so I can’t judge its worth for developers at crowded public demo events.