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Lenovo Explorer and Windows Mixed Reality Review

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Lenovo Explorer Hardware:

What I want to cover first here is the specs of the Explorer, which you can find at Lenovo's product page and in other places on the Internet. The Explorer has a pair of LCD displays with a combined resolution of 2880x1440, so 1440x1440 per eye, and they run at 90 Hz, the established sweet spot for head mounted displays. The lenses offer a field of view of 110º.

One important aspect of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets is the so-called inside-out tracking they use. To achieve this, the front of the headset has a pair of inside-out motion tracking cameras that will watch for the ring or halo of LEDs on the controllers. (I think I will refer to it as a halo as it resides at the top of the controller.) Other sensors include a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and a proximity sensor. Naturally the first three are to track the motion of the headset without the need of external sensors, while the proximity sensor is to identify when you are wearing it. If plugged in and the proximity sensor goes off, the Windows Mixed Reality Portal application will launch, but there might be other sensors to it as well, as I observed the portal launching at times other than while I was wearing it.

There are two cables that come out of the display portion of the headset. One is the 3.5 mm audio jack and is not very long, as it does not need to be, while the other is the 4 m long cable that eventually splits to HDMI and USB 3.0 cables. There is not much to say about the video and data cable beyond that I appreciate it being a Y-cable as it makes cable management much simpler. I am wondering when we might see the industry develop a single-cable solution become a single cable or when we might see computer cases with HDMI ports on the front, so you do not need to run a cable from the back of your desktop. (HDMI Ethernet Channel technology does exist as part of the HDMI 1.4 spec, allowing for up to 100 Mb/s bi-directional data transmission, so I would think video and data on the same cable should be doable, so long as the video card can also support the data channel. I am not sure how much power HDMI can carry.)

What holds the cables in place against the head strap is a small plastic clip, and you do not want to lose this. It was fine when the clip fell off and I was playing a MR/VR game that allows one to sit, but when I was doing some room-scale testing, I observed the display portion would fall away from my face if I looked down some. The clip and the pressure it holds the cables with helps to keep the display from swinging forward, so it is more than a piece of cable management.

All of the headset's body is plastic and to me it just looks black, but the product page identifies it as 'iron gray.' Either way, it is a respectable dark color that does not call undue attention to itself, and I like that. It helps give the headset a more professional character to it, even if some would consider it a toy when using it primarily to play games.

This image is from the Lenovo Explorer product page

 

The head strap is almost featureless, except for the knob at the back for adjusting its size. It ratchets when you reduce the size, so it will not loosen as you wear it. It is effective and actually somewhat comfortable, but it might take some getting used to. It has not been uncomfortable for me, but I have been finding it more comfortable as I wear it more. I did try placing my pair of studio over-the-ear headphones on over the head strap, and it did not fit. Luckily I have a pair of ear-clip headphones, so they lack the band that runs into the head strap, and I would assume ear buds would work as well, but I have not tried a pair yet. (I am not a fan of ear buds.)There is not much to say about the head strap except that it uses a knob to adjust its size, and it ratchets down to keep from loosening as you wear it. It is effective and actually somewhat comfortable. It has taken a little getting used to for me, but it was never uncomfortable.

Perhaps very importantly for some of you, the pads around the head strap and the part of the display that rest against your face all appear to be attached by something akin to Velcro. Its behavior is similar at the very least, which is good because some may want to replace them after so much use, or swap them out if multiple people use the headset. The only physical issue with the headset I have had actually concerns the pad around the inside of the display portion. There is a triangular cut-out to this portion of the headset for your nose, and the pad mirrors this. Thankfully, for me at least, the pad is not secured in its place around the nose because when wearing the headset with the pad where it should be, enough pressure is applied to my nose to be rather uncomfortable. Some of the weight of the headset feels to be on my nose when it is like this, and my nose also feels like it is being pinched slightly, restricting my breathing. A very simple solution for this is to just pull the pad down to be below my nose, relieving all of the pressure. If the Explorer were my own property and not on loan from Explorer, I would seriously consider just cutting off this section of the pad, or at least search for a replacement without this section, or cut it off of the extra pad.

This image is from the Lenovo Explorer product page

I should mention the headset does not perfectly fit my face, so there are gaps light can slip in through. It is easy enough to forget about this, but it is also easy to spot the slices of light reflecting off of the lenses. The determining factor is if I am focused on the image being shown to me, as the light has not drawn me out of the experience. I have only noticed it when, for one reason or another, I have already stepped back from the experience being presented to me. In theory a custom face pad designed to match my face would solve this, so perhaps someone out there could start a business producing them, or modify an existing business to the same purpose.

Something else I should mention that may be important to some of you is that the display portion does leave enough space between the lenses and my face to accommodate my glasses. This might just barely be the case, as it feels like the lenses could be against each other, but I am not sure. I am also unsure if the lenses might scratch each other. Luckily, the display portion does actually have enough room between the lenses and my face to accommodate my glasses, but this might just barely be the case. I am unsure but it feels like the lenses could be against each other and I do not know if one pair might scratch the other, if they are indeed touching. Luckily for me, I do not need to wear my glasses to resolve the display, so I am able to wear the headset without them, and this is my preference.

Something I have seen and heard mentioned about other head mounted displays is the 'screen door' effect, which I believe is when you can actually see the dark lines between the pixels of the display. At least my eyes are able to make this out, but there are two points to consider with that information. One is how easy it is to completely forget about these lines when you are focused on what is being displayed, so they are minor. One is that it was easy to forget about and stop seeing them. The other is I have weird eyes so it is entirely possible that they are able to resolve such a detail that one with more normal vision cannot see. In fact, I can even focus on the image closely enough that it seems as though I am seeing the sub-pixel RGB elements. I asked my brother if he noticed the dark lines, and he did not, which may confirm that they are easy to forget about and/or that I have weird eyes. Take your pick, but either way, I am not overly concerned with this, though I do look forward to future headsets with still higher pixel densities. (How weird are my eyes? With my glasses my vision is 20/15, so if the lenses of the Explorer are coincidentally working to correct my vision, it could be to an above-average level.)

Before moving on to the controllers, I do want to mention one thing about the audio jack. When you plug headphones into it, it activates an audio device for the headset. This means your normal speaker setup will no longer be the default audio device (assuming your computer correctly swaps device), so all audio will go to the connected headphones (unless you have something specifically configured to go to another device). At least with SteamVR it is possible to set the audio to be mirrored to another device, if you desire that (helpful for recording, but the audio appeared to be out of sync when I tried this).

The controllers bear the Lenovo logo, but other than that are identical to the motion controllers of all other Windows Mixed Reality headsets. They take two AA batteries each, which the Explorer and Controllers Bundle comes with, and their Bluetooth syncing button is within the battery compartment. This placement makes sense, as you will likely not need to pair them often. There are also wrist straps at the bottom of the controller, and I almost forgot to mention them, but do not forget to use.

This is a screen capture from the Lenovo Explorer application that launch when first setting up everything up

 

At the top of the controllers is the halo of white LEDs, which can actually be fairly bright, and these will tell you the state of the controllers (on, off, ready to pair). Where your thumbs will go are trackpads that also can be clicked as buttons. To the inside of each trackpad (left for the right controller and mirrored for the other) are joysticks, which again can be clicked as buttons. Between them is the menu button, which I am going to criticize in a bit. These three all exist on the top section of the controller, below the halo. Down a little on the grip are the Windows buttons, which act as Windows keys and serve to turn the controllers on and off. The grips also have a grab or grip button, and I am most likely to refer to them as the latter, that fall where you fingers should, and then there is naturally a trigger near the top, but on the opposite side of the trackpad, joystick, and menu button.

My criticism of the menu button is technically two separate things, but the first I want to cover is the odd placement of it, at least if the button is expected to be pressed much. It is sort of squeezed between the joystick and the trackpad, and neither tall nor large, making it easy to miss when you want to press it. That is one criticism and the other is I wish it and the Windows buttons were flipped, either on the hardware or through software. On more than one occasion I pressed a Windows button wanting more of a menu function, and as I am less likely to want to press the Windows button overall, I wish it were in the harder to identify location. Still, it all works so these are only criticisms and not real complaints.

This is a screen capture from the Lenovo Explorer application that launch when first setting up everything up

 

The product page for the Explorer also states the controllers have accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, obviously to assist in tracking their movements. I have on some occasions placed a controller behind my back for one reason or another, and the movement is still reasonably accurate, despite my body occluding the light of the halo. Actually at times it almost seemed like the system should rely more on these internal sensors than the motion tracking, as movements that brought the controllers into view would not always be represented smoothly. If my guess is accurate, that is something that can be achieved through a software update, and even then was not too great an issue, so it is also not too great a concern. The behavior of the controllers when not in view of the motion-tracking cameras also seems to vary between applications.

Thanks to the combination of sensors, the Explorer and other Windows Mixed Reality headsets are capable of seated, standing, and room-scale experiences, and this can be done without much set up. Technically you are supposed to trace out boundaries, but I found some games still accepted my moving around the room without having configured the software for a room-scale experience. (Unfortunately my room is not large enough for a proper room-scale experience, but I had the bright idea to take it out to the garage. Once the cars are pulled out, there is plenty of open room to move about in and we had a fun time playing some games this way. Sitting or standing experiences are still enjoyable, so do not think you need a room-scale setup for everything.)

One odd thing I ran into and I honestly am unsure of the cause was a near total lack of correct tracking of the controllers. I mentioned earlier how light could sneak into the headset, so I decided to try turning the lights off to prevent this. It might have been coincidence, but when the lights were off the controllers were being placed in the virtual world quite far ahead of me. Sometimes they would snap back to where they actually were, but in an instant they would be gone again. This only occurred when I had the lights off, so I assume there is a connection. It would seem to indicate ambient light somehow plays a role in the motion tracking, possibly by accident, but the issue of light leaking in, as I already said, is not all that significant.

Since I like concluding sections with a summary I will say that I find the Explorer to be a very respectable piece of hardware and one I am very glad I got to use and work with. It might not be flashy or aggressively styled or loaded with RGB LEDs, but it does not need to be and I do not really want it to be. It works, works well, is comfortable, and easy to setup and use.

One thing I will say is I am curious to see if third-party controllers are developed, possibly with a greater focus on gaming, or a system to allow the tracking of other objects. Being able to accurately place your keyboard in the virtual space could be nice, especially for typing, but that is something I want to save for one of the Experience sections. Good thing that is what I am coming to next.




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