I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m a Vive guy when it comes to VR. I have a section dedicated to Vive in Education here on VirtualiTeach, I always use my Vive when I’m hosting #CPDinVR and it’s my go-to headset for testing all new 6DOF experiences. That being said, earlier this year I reviewed how we had deployed and were using our 3 Vives at JESS Dubai and decided to make a change. We have three schools at JESS – two primary schools (for students aged 3-11) and one secondary school (11-18) and I had initially put one Vive in each school. What dawned on me though was that whilst the Vive (unlike the Rift) does not come with a specific age recommendation, we could only really use it with our oldest primary students. The Vive HMD is quite large and heavy and does not fit younger students comfortably. In my experience, I could use it with some Yr5 students (9-10 year olds) for a short time but even then smaller kids would sometimes struggle with it.
Then about six months ago I managed t get my hands on an Acer WMR headset. (SIDENOTE - Now those of you that read the site regularly will know my feelings on Microsoft’s use of the term “Mixed Reality” to blur the lines between their product lines but I will play ball and refer to it here as a WMR headset here rather than a VR headset since this is what it is sold as.) One of the set of nigh identical headsets released last year, the Acer WMR was actually a far greater success than I expected and we have just invested in another one for the primaries whilst we have moved the Vives to the Secondary school full time.
So what was it about the Acer headset that worked so well? Crucially it’s much lighter than the Vive (or Rift) and adjustable to fit much smaller heads. Even my youngest daughter who is 6 (and quite small for her age) is able to wear it comfortably – normally while hammering away on BeatSaber! She’s also able to put it on and adjust it independently. The visor tips up on a hinge too meaning that kids can take a peek back into the real world whenever they want e.g. to interact with a peer or just to get their bearings.
Another factor that bears mentioning is that the WMR headsets use inside-out tracking and as such there is no need for base stations. This not only makes for a quicker setup but also means that it’s logistically easier and there are less peripherals like tripods in the way. This makes for an easier ride when dealing with a classroom full of younger students who are generally more energetic and potentially more likely to knock things over! Additionally it makes the setup process quicker and easier for a teacher with younger students who could be less independent.
But if there are multiple WMR headsets that essentially have the exact same specs, what is it about the Acer one that sets it apart? It may seem trivial but it’s the colour. Whilst the other headsets are a traditionally sleek black colour, Acer went for the somewhat unorthodox choice of using a vibrant blue as you have no doubt noticed from the pictures. In my opinion this little difference makes the headset seem much more child-friendly, almost toy-like in its aesthetic which makes it a more welcoming proposition for those that have never tried VR on this level before.
One thing to bear in mind when utilising a WMR headset is the apps. When these headsets first launched and Steam was inaccessible, this left just the ghost town that was the Microsoft Store for content – not great and likely the main reason uptake on the WMRs wasn’t great initially. Flash forward to the present and things are much rosier. The Windows Store has become more active, with certain VR experiences like Minecraft and Hold The World being exclusively available from this source. Additionally the WMR app is now available from Steam, allowing you to run some Steam VR apps. I say some as it does need highlighting that not all Steam VR experiences will run smoothly on WMR. Most are fine, others will require some guess work to adjust to mismatched button layouts and some will not function well at all. A little trial and error tends to be the answer but do look for the WMR icon on Steam app pages for a clue as to whether support for these headsets has been deployed by the developers.
One final factor in terms of the WMR headsets is the price. They are significantly cheaper than the other 6DOF headsets (though they do still require a high-end PC to run) and as the uptake with VR early adopters has been relatively poor, the prices seem to keep on tumbling. Case in point – that new Acer headset we just got for JESS Dubai cost us nothing at all – it was given to us free with the purchase of a new Acer Predator laptop (ironically bought to go with one of the Vives in the Secondary school). If you shop around or wait for annual sale events like Black Fruiday or New Years, you’ll pick a WMR up very cheap which makes them a tempting way for schools that are new to room-scale VR to dip their toes in the water!