What is it?: A virtual reality headset marketed under Microsoft’s Mixed Reality initiative.
Launch date: October 2017
Price: Varies, official retail price (including controllers): US$449.99
Available on: Lenovo
Software compatibility: SteamVR, Windows Store Mixed Reality Apps (and certain Oculus titles through ReVive)
Remember when Oculus and HTC launched their flagship VR headsets back in 2016? Everyone was making “virtual reality experiences” to go with their games, much like the onslaught of second screen companions that plagued many games at the tail-end of the last console generation. Of course, things didn’t stop there, and soon we got the first “proper” VR games, with gems like Space Pirate Trainer or Arizona Sunshine showcasing the true power of virtual reality (and probably causing people to break some furniture in the process of learning how to adjust to room scale experiences). Later that same year, Sony launched their own headset, offering a lower resolution display, but letting players access VR content without having to build a relatively high-end machine (provided they had a PlayStation 4, of course).
While all of that happened, Microsoft sat aside, working on a mysterious augmented reality device known as Hololens, which would supposedly let us experience things straight out of Minority Report in the comfort of our own home. However that didn’t mean that the company wasn’t planning to enter the VR market, as we later learned that they’d cooked up their own design for VR hardware, which would be manufactured and sold by a number of partners (Acer, Dell, Samsung, HP, Asus and Lenovo). Those headsets began to roll out in October of last year, though marketing seems to have been almost non-existent, as you’d be hard pressed to find the kind of media coverage present at the Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR launches.
So why are we reviewing the Lenovo Explorer today, a year after its initial release? The answer is very simple: Price and software compatibility. Right now it’s easy to find deals on Windows Mixed Reality hardware, and most SteamVR compatible titles work with Lenovo’s offering right out of the box, with no need for any sort of tinkering. As expected from a gaming-focused website, we will examine this headset from the perspective of a PC gamer, and not a professional in a field that could benefit from virtual reality hardware (as we are not really qualified to do that, and would probably make fools of ourselves in the process).
With all that out of the way, let’s focus on the task at hand and talk about the star of today’s show, Lenovo’s Explorer Windows Mixed Reality headset.
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*Cortana is available in selected markets, experience may vary by region.
Readers familiar with the hardware specifications of both the Vive and the Oculus Rift headsets will probably note that Lenovo’s offering boasts a slightly higher resolution display (1440 x 1440 per eye on the Explorer versus 1080×1200 per eye on the Oculus Rift/Vive). This means that the dreaded screen door effect is a bit less noticeable, although it’s still there if you know where to look. FOV-wise, this particular Windows Mixed Reality headset is on par with its competitors, but sadly it can’t quite say the same when it comes to the display, as the Lenovo Explorer uses LCD displays, while both the Vive and the Rift boast higher quality OLED screens. Compared to the custom lenses used by its direct competitors, the Explorer’s Fresnel lenses display a noticeably blurrier image near the edges of our vision, and although this didn’t really affect my gaming experience, I often felt as if I was looking at the world through a diver’s mask.
The headset itself weighs just 380g, almost 100g less than the Oculus Rift/Vive. While this number might not seem very high, I’ve discovered that even such a small weight difference can help a lot when it comes to long VR sessions, as it’s far easier to “go with the flow” and forget that you have a VR headset strapped to your head when it’s as light as the Explorer.
VR enthusiasts looking for a physical IPD adjustment button won’t find any, sadly. This won’t affect people who sit near the 62mm IPD mark, but anyone over 67mm or under 59mm might want to consider a different headset, as the software options won’t go past those marks. (If you don’t know what’s your IPD, here’s a handy guide so you can measure it at home, courtesy of wikiHow: 3 Ways to Measure your Interpupillary Distance)
There are no integrated headphones or even a microphone either, though there’s a 3.5mm jack that to the side of the headset, allowing us to connect our own should we desire to avoid having yet another cable running from the PC to our head. Theoretically, we could accomplish the same thing with a wireless audio device, but Microsoft recommends against this option, as the motion controllers use the Bluetooth 4.0 standard and adding extra wireless devices could cause unforeseen complications. Speaking about wires, the headset only needs one, which splits in two right at the end, so we can connect our VR device to an USB 3.0 connector and our graphics card’s HDMI port.
In order to strap the headset to our heads, Lenovo (and most WMR manufacturers, as far as I know) chose to follow Sony’s lead, using a single headband with just two moving parts, a wheel that’s used to tighten the whole thing behind the back of the user’s head, and a hinge (not present in PSVR headsets, but present in almost all the WMR solutions, with Samsung being the only outlier) that lets us lift the face mask in order to see the real world. A series of foam supplements go all around the edge of the device, preventing us from touching the plastic, and also acting as a sort of barrier against the light that would otherwise creep its way inside of the headset while we play.
Thanks to its low weight, the Explorer sits comfortably on our head, and after a bit more than a month of intensive use, I’m happy to report that its build quality is far sturdier than I would have expected after first seeing the hardware with my own eyes. I don’t particularly trust the hinge, since I’ve read reports of it breaking off after a while, but everything else works as intended, with no wear and tear after countless hours of VR entertainment.
Now that we’ve talked about the headset in detail, it’s time for the motion controllers, and Microsoft’s answer to the Vive’s base stations. In order to truly appreciate VR software (or videogames), it’s very important to be able to interact with whatever we are seeing on screen with a control solution that feels as close as just using our hands as possible. This was my biggest issue with launch Oculus hardware, for instance, as the company shipped its CV1 headset with a 360 gamepad, since their Touch controllers weren’t ready yet. This limited the range of the experiences we could have in VR greatly, and until the Touch hardware shipped, made Oculus’ offering an inferior proposition when compared to the Vive.
As Microsoft entered the race late in the game, they had all of this information in hand, and developed their own custom motion controllers, complete with touchpads, thumbsticks, and an assortment of buttons that make them compatible with software designed for the competition. Power comes thanks to two AA batteries per controller (the box includes 4 batteries, but those won’t last for more than a few uses so I’d recommend getting rechargeable batteries as soon as possible).
In order to track these controllers through our play space, the Lenovo Explorer uses two low resolution, black and white cameras located at the front of the headset itself, thus doing away with the need for base stations or any other hardware (save for a Bluetooth 4.0 dongle if our machine doesn’t have that functionality built in). This system requires enough light for the cameras to see the environment around the user, and a non-featureless room, as the tracking solution will need some points of interest to act as a reference in order to find our play space.
As expected, this inside-out tracking solution isn’t perfect, since the controllers won’t always be in sight of the cameras. When the headset loses sight, it won’t necessarily stop tracking them, as there are other sensors at work, but the accuracy will be compromised, depending on the amount of time spent out of camera range. In practice, this means that most of the time we won’t even notice it when the cameras lose tracking of our controllers, and it will only become a nuisance in games that require almost perfect movement. I did read many complaints on Reddit and other forums, but my personal experience has been excellent so far, and I’ve been able to play Pavlov VR, Space Pirate Trainer, Beat Saber, etc. without feeling like I was having at a disadvantage.
Build quality is also quite great here as well, though I don’t particularly enjoy the trackpad’s sensitivity in games that use it for direct movement (Steam games that are certified for WMR compatibility will usually map movement to the thumbstick, which is my preferred control method, but titles designed with the Vive in mind will default to the trackpad, and unless we are savvy enough to create our own custom bindings or a helpful Steam user has uploaded their own, we’ll have to settle for that). The plastic circle that holds the light array that will be tracked by the headset’s cameras seems flimsy upon first inspection, but after some rough play (it’s easy to forget that you are near a wall if you are playing something like Gorn, let me tell you that!), I discovered that it was in fact quite sturdy (the wall suffered more than the controllers).
Software and ease of use
So far we’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing the quality of the hardware, but I’d like to digress for a moment and praise both the ease of installation, and the software library available to any WMR owner. While the experience of setting up a Vive or an Oculus Rift can be excruciating, as we need to clear up enough space for the trackers every time we wish to play a VR game, the Lenovo Explorer sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. In order to get the device ready for action we just have to connect the HDMI and USB 3.0 cables to our computer, pair the controllers and everything just works. Want to set up a boundary so you don’t bump into things while in VR? Simple, just select the appropriate option in the Windows Mixed Reality application, and use your headset as a drawing tool, creating a fake wall of white lines that will let you know when you are getting too close to things that might break if you punch them.
It’s this ease of use that truly separates the WMR headsets from the other two well known PC-based devices, as we no longer need to lose precious playtime with a convoluted setup process (which must be repeated if we change rooms, or wish to show off the experience at a friend’s house). Want to use a notebook so you can play in the living room? Easy, carry the machine there, plug in your Explorer, draw your boundary and that’s it! It’s weird that there’s almost no marketing for these devices, since one of the most common complaints leveled against VR headsets is that the user needs to spend a lot of time configuring their play space or setting up sensors.
Regarding software, almost every app or videogame billed as SteamVR compatible will work out of the box, with just a few outliers outright refusing to launch on our headset, or being hard/impossible to control. In all of these cases, we won’t even need to purchase and then refund, as there’s always someone asking about WMR compatibility in the Steam Discussion Forums for each VR game. This means that the amount of games just sitting there waiting for us to play them number in the hundreds, with heavyweights such as Beat Saber, Pavlov VR, GORN or Fallout 4 VR lining up our virtual libraries as we look in despair at our omnipresent backlog.
I haven’t tried VorpX (an utility that lets us play flatscreen titles in VR), and it doesn’t officially support WMR headsets, but I’ve read reports that it works just fine. Oculus exclusives can also be enjoyed through ReVive, and there are a few mods that let us play flatscreen games in VR, with varying degrees of success (I particularly enjoyed Fishbiter’s Doom/Doom 2 VR mod).
The Lenovo Explorer might not look like much, but it packs a punch thanks to an incredibly simple setup process, and full SteamVR compatibility. This doesn’t mean that gamers who already own an HTC Vive or an Oculus Rift should throw away their hardware and purchase one of these instead, as the inside-out tracking solution compromises accuracy in favor of ease of use, but anyone in the market for a reliable VR headset might want to take a look at Lenovo’s offering before spending their hard earned bucks.