Recently, I had the opportunity to try out HoloLens, Microsoft’s mixed-reality eyewear now in development, which promises to change the way we work and play. My experience began at the Microsoft Store on Fifth Avenue, where the distance between my pupils was measured* and I learned the different gestures I could use to interact with the device.
The HoloLens was surprisingly comfortable. While it could stand to shed some weight (a common problem among these headsets) and have a little more padding between the glass and bridge of the nose, the fit of the headset was otherwise superb. The device is built around a cushioned ring that wraps around the forehead to the back of the crown, allowing you to adjust the tightness with the scroll of a wheel.
With HoloLens over my eyes and an Xbox controller** in my hands, I began the first demo. After rotating 360 degrees in place, the roughly ten-by-ten-foot room transformed into an arena for combat. I heard a thud coming from my side and swiveled in time to see a metal tunnel crash through the wall. As hordes of hostile aliens flew out, it was my job to make them hit the dirt, ducking, strafing, and dodging laser fire to keep myself alive. As the game went on, the enemies I encountered grew tougher, some blanketing the room with fire, and others, like the “Queen,” summoning an endless stream of cannon-fodder to slow down my assault. It was a really fun exercise with gratifying game mechanics, and a very active ten minutes or so at that.This may be the effect Microsoft tried and failed to achieve with the Kinect 1.0 and 2. It appears the third time is the charm.
The second demo, which was geared more toward business and educational use, allowed me plenty of time to cool off. I started off in a “showroom,” with an expensive watch projected on the pedestal in front of me. As a narrator praised the craftsmanship and qualities of the watch, the assembly unraveled into an exploded-view diagram, and I was encouraged to walk around and view the centerpiece from every angle. Looking at specific components triggered captions to appear on screen that explained the components’ significance to the overall piece. A couple of other graphics caught my eye during the demonstration: a regional company’s breakdown of profits by city, for example. Using Bing, HoloLens turned a tabletop into a terrain map. Then, segments of a bar chart representing each city’s numbers hovered vertically over them on the map, in a way that would never be possible in the 2D space. There were some excellent visualizations of data using this added third plane. But by far the coolest part of this demo was going into edit mode—when it was revealed that all these presentations could be created in HoloLens through its PowerPoint-like editor. This is where the gestures I learned earlier were put to use—the “air tap” is the equivalent of the click, but HoloLens also relies on gaze and speech for navigation as well. Using a combination of these, you can enter in notes and fire up a teleprompter. If your client is also wearing a HoloLens, you can see what they’re focusing on in real time or build up heat maps that show trends over time.
The demos I participated in were impressive, for sure. But if HoloLens is to be a successful product, there are a couple of hurdles it will have to overcome. First, at $3,000, the HoloLens is double the price of the oft-compared Google Glass. To be fair, though, HoloLens is a far more capable device (Microsoft claims it has more processing power than the average laptop). And rather than being just a consumer “gadget,” HoloLens could appeal to enterprises in the health-care, 3D modeling, and engineering sectors, who view it as an innovative, productivity-boosting tool worth investing in. Software is what sells hardware, in the end.
From a technical standpoint, the device’s biggest flaw is its narrow field of vision. When you put on the HoloLens, the projection only covers a small square of your vision, meaning holograms that straddle or lie outside this border end up getting cut off. In practice, the display ends up looking more like a floating screen rather than a natural extension of your vision—a floating screen with fantastic picture quality, yes, but far from the pair of reality-altering goggles that the HoloLens is supposed to be.
Overall, the HoloLens has some amazing capabilities, and I’m looking forward to its release. I’m hoping, however, that they’ll address these few issues before the final product launch.
* This step, I’m told, will not be required for users of the final consumer release.
** To be clear, this isn’t to say this demo was powered by the Xbox One. Xbox controllers can be connected to PCs, and as of now, Microsoft has only pledged HoloLens support in Windows 10. Whether HoloLens support will come to the Xbox, or if this is even technically feasible, remains unclear.