The HP Reverb G2 upgrades Windows Mixed Reality with Valve’s VR design smarts and 4 cameras

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The HP Reverb G2 upgrades Windows Mixed Reality with Valve’s VR design smarts and 4 cameras

The HP Reverb G2 might be the savior Windows Mixed Reality (MR) so desperately needs. Hopefully. Announced Thursday but not available until the fall, HP has a lot to prove and a lot of skeptics to convert, myself included.

I’ve spoken often, and loudly, about my issues with the Windows MR ecosystem. Even in 2017 the hardware was a bit underwhelming, and the ensuing “upgrades” never rectified some of the fundamental problems with the platform. Last year’s HP Reverb featured a best-in-class display and an Oculus-like design—but paired with the Windows MR platform’s busted tracking solution, you might as well have been driving a Ferrari with square wheels.

But then I heard Valve was involved with the Reverb G2. Valve, who helped HTC launch the original Vive. Valve, who now makes the best VR headset money can buy, the Index. Valve, who with the Reverb G2 apparently helped HP make the first Windows MR headset to evolve the platform since launch. They’ve done it by…well, lifting a lot of the Valve Index hardware. Oh, and upgrading to four cameras.

Four. Cameras.

To explain why the HP Reverb G2 matters so much, I have to delve into the history (and limitations) of the Windows MR platform. Bear with me.

HP Reverb Gen 2 HP

Being first has its drawbacks. When the first Windows Mixed Reality headsets rolled out in 2017, they had one major advantage over the then-current Oculus Rift and HTC Vive: built-in tracking. No base stations. The Rift and Vive required setting up devices all around the room for tracking, but not Windows MR. 

One device. One USB port. Windows MR made setup easy. The headset, with dual cameras and other sensors, could track both its own position in the room and the location of the two controllers. You could be up and running in a minute or two. Contrast that with the Vive, which came with mounting hardware so you could attach its boxy Lighthouse base stations to your walls, permanently.

But while base stations were (and are) ugly, they were also precise. The Vive set the bar high, with rock-solid tracking even in fairly large rooms. The Rift struggled a bit more with its room-scale solution, but it was still miles better than Windows MR. The dual front-facing cameras on Windows MR headsets simply couldn’t track a wide variety of important hand motions.

Throwing an object is an easy example. Imagine picking up an object up from the floor and throwing it. How often are your hands actually in view? When you raise your hand and bring it back, do you watch yourself do it? Probably not. The brain is remarkably good at physics calculations. You bend your arm, draw your hand back along your ear, then fling it forward. It’s intuitive.

Windows MR headsets lose track of your hands as soon as they’re out of sight. Oh, they try to compensate. Various sensors allow Windows MR to approximate where it thinks your hands might be when they leave the relatively narrow field-of-view of those front-facing cameras. The longer your hands are absent though, the less accurate the estimate. It made games like Superhot, where economy of motion is critical, incredibly frustrating on Windows MR headsets.

Worse, the cameras would occasionally lose track of the entire room if all landmarks temporarily disappeared from its sight. This could lead to disorienting moments where the player’s view snapped from place to place, or the headset left the player stranded a few feet above the floor. Again, the longer you played in any given session, the more likely you were to encounter issues.

The early Windows MR headsets made me skeptical of built-in tracking solutions. Then Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift S came along, with four and five cameras respectively. Suddenly, built-in tracking was “good enough.” Sure, the Quest and Rift S still can’t match the Index’s precision, but they do a solid job under most circumstances, and they’re a hell of a lot more portable than the Index’s base stations.

HP Reverb Gen 2 HP

The Reverb G2 is the first Windows MR headset to break out of the dual-camera paradigm. I can’t tell you why it didn’t happen earlier, nor can I tell you whether this is an HP-specific development, or if we’ll see it on all Windows MR headsets going forward.

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