Our first day with HoloLens: A tiny window into a magical future

0 Posted by - 12th August 2016 - Technology

When Microsoft dropped the bomb that was HoloLens in a January 2015 event, a world that was increasingly eyeing virtual reality as our future stopped in its tracks to rethink the almost-forgotten parallel world of augmented reality. Would AR have a bright future alongside, or perhaps beyond, VR? A year and a half later, we now have a HoloLens dev kit in house and we’ve gotten our first glimpse – a narrow one, but a glimpse nonetheless – into a future where we all star in our own CGI-laden fantasy films.

The first time you use the Microsoft HoloLens, you might be severely disappointed. After months of anticipation, salivating over press shots and videos that make HoloLens look like it blends the virtual and real around you in all directions, you’re likely to be in for a shock when you see just how narrow the headset’s field of view is. It’s sort of like you can only see the augmented part of the world through a window floating directly – and only directly – in front of you. Sure, the virtual objects and characters are "all around you," in that you see them when you turn your head to look straight at them, but move your head just the slightest bit in any direction, and they get cut off or vanish entirely.

But that disappointment is more about unrealistic expectations, spawned and perpetuated by Microsoft, than it is anything "wrong" with HoloLens. Once you accept that the field of view in today’s model is nothing like what Redmond’s marketing team is selling in images like the one below, then you can start to appreciate everything else that’s right about this mesmerizing glimpse into the world of AR. And make no mistake: There’s a lot that’s right about it.


Microsoft marketing images like this paint a more accurate picture of where AR can be years from now than they do today’s HoloLens, with its tiny field of view

Just take a step back for a moment and look at what Microsoft has created here. Unlike VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, HoloLens is a completely standalone, wireless headset. It maps and remembers your surroundings, much like Google Tango. And then it displays 3D virtual objects and animations (or, as Microsoft likes to call them, "holograms") that interact with that fully-mapped real world around you.

No need to hold up a phone, Pokémon Go style. This is easily the best hands-free, headworn, "real" AR we’ve seen.

Developers are already releasing some exciting stuff for HoloLens, most notably games. As much as we’ve enjoyed VR gaming, AR gaming may end up being just as exciting: What you lose in the lack of a fully-enclosed virtual world, you make up for in the sensation of seeing holographic characters jumping off of your fireplace mantle or sitting down on your coffee table. These are games that adapt themselves to your room.

Again, we’re just getting a glimmer of that potential with the HoloLens as it exists today (which is, remember, a pre-release dev kit). But as soon as Microsoft or another OEM releases an equivalent Windows Holographic headset with a wider field of view – whether that’s in a year or five years – this is going to be a huge deal: for gamers, video junkies, 3D designers and, further down the road, just about anyone.

Imagine a future AR headset that takes the principles of HoloLens, but comes in a much subtler form factor. Maybe it doesn’t even look much different from a pair of Oakleys. Now imagine more lifelike visuals along with a field of view that covers the entire ~180 degrees of the human eyes, including peripheral vision. Throw in all-day battery life to boot.

We’re likely many years, probably decades, away from a headset that ticks all of those boxes (Oculus’ Michael Abrash gave a terrific talk about this last year). But just imagine when we get to the point where these "magic glasses" exist. Will we still need smartphones and other mobile devices? Will we need desktop computers, laptops or tablets? TVs? Smartwatches? I’d say no to all of the above, because we’ll be able to project virtual versions of all of their content into the world around us.

The notifications, games, videos and reading you do on your phone or tablet: just float them above your office desk or on the wall of the train you’re taking to work.

The movie you’re going to watch with your family: sit down, wait for everyone to cue up the flick on their glasses and create a holographic 90-inch TV screen on the empty wall in front of the couch.

The paper you’re typing on your laptop: pair your glasses with a wireless keyboard (we suspect tactile feedback will always be important) and watch your words pop up on the holographic screen floating in front of you.


This screenshot is a lie: Unless you stood very far back, the headset’s narrow FOV would prevent you from seeing all of these virtual "holograms" at once

Once they get to a certain level of maturity, AR headsets have the potential to be a tech to end all other tech. If the smartphone is ever going to go the way of the dodo, we’d say some future badass augmented reality headset will be the device that pushes it into extinction.

So how far is today’s HoloLens from being that ultimate AR product?

Well, first off, it’s ridiculously bulky compared to future versions that you’ll actually want to wear out in public. HoloLens’ size and battery life (just a few hours of active use) dictate that it’s going to be mostly a home-only or office-only product. Sure, you can take it out into the real world, but you’d better prepare yourself for some stares if you do. It makes you look a bit like Luke Skywalker wearing that gaudy blast shield helmet aboard the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars. Not exactly incognito.

Once you get past the shockingly small field of view, HoloLens’ optics look terrific. We’ll see higher-res AR as the years go by, but neither pixelation nor an abundance of transparency are issues in today’s model.

The headset itself is comfortable. it’s light enough that a couple of times I forgot I had it on (though anyone around you certainly won’t forget that you’re wearing it).

Developers are also still just scratching the surface of Windows Holographic content, but HoloLens is helped by the fact that it can run standard 2D Windows 10 apps, placing them anywhere you please in your environment. For example, I spent a few minutes today playing Candy Crush on the wall of my office.

The early apps and games show some clever blending of real and virtual. In RoboRaid, alien attackers burrow behind your walls and appear to blow holes in them as they emerge to attack you:

In investigation adventure Fragments, your real space transforms into a reconstructed crime scene, which you search for clues:

In Young Conker, a fuzzy little protagonist turns your room into a Mario level:

The key is these computer-animated characters and virtual environments are all bound by the same walls and furniture that you are. If there’s an ottoman sitting in front of your couch, Young Conker might jump onto and then off of it. If you have an exercise machine in the middle of your family room, a RoboRaider may fly around it on its way to melt your brain.

VR gaming tricks your brain through total immersion, but AR gaming tricks it through real-world integration. It’s no less mesmerizing.

Right now the big double-take factor with HoloLens is its price. At US$3,000, this is among the most expensive non-automotive products we’ve ever reviewed. But keep in mind that this is pre-release, developer kit pricing, and we’d expect the consumer version (whether from Microsoft or other OEMs riffing off of the Windows Holographic model) to come in lower than that. Or at least we hope.

We’ll be spending much more time with HoloLens over the coming weeks, including more detail on available content, but our first day with it in the offices paints a picture of an exciting future. Yes, the FOV is incredibly frustrating, but I’m already adjusting to it. It’s a bit of a rough draft, but we still believe we’re looking at a future masterpiece.

Product page: Microsoft

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