HoloLens, Microsoft’s augmented reality (AR) viewer, feels like the future of computing.
Being upfront, the headgear that I tried at Build 2015 was “early development hardware,” and it definitely felt that way. But the potential, and how close HoloLens is to achieving it, is simply remarkable.[Editor’s Note: Microsoft didn’t allow cameras inside the Build 2015 HoloLens demo room. These images are of a HoloLens inside a glass case that was just outside.]
The moment I tried on HoloLens during a “Holographic Academy” session with fellow journalists, I thought, “This is like having a PC on my face.” It’s not quite that functional yet, but that’s how the headgear, and what you see and can do with it, makes me feel.
There was no gaming in the session I attended, like we’ve seen since (more on that later). Instead, I was a developer for 90 minutes, crafting an app in Unity and adding HoloLens functions as I went.
With every new function added, like gesture controls and spatial sound, I witnessed how it translates into the HoloLens experience. The session aimed to show how easy it is to develop for HoloLens, but it also demonstrated what you and I will experience once it’s out.
But, before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s hit the latest news around HoloLens.
Assuming you have $3,000 (£2,719, AU$4,369) to spare, HoloLens is now up for grabs regardless of whether you’re enrolled in Microsoft’s developer program. The self-described “mixed reality” headset went on sale for developers eager to take risks on new technology back in March.
If you’re wondering when HoloLens will be available to buy off store shelves, don’t count on that happening anytime soon. In fact, the inventor of HoloLens, Alex Kipman, told CNET that Microsoft is waiting for the headset to fall “under $1,000” before it’s ready for public consumption. In the meantime, HoloLens subsists as an enterprise-focused product.
What’s more, a recent report from alternate reality die-hard Robert Scoble suggests the Cupertino tech giant is collaborating with optics company Carl Zeiss on a pair of mixed reality glasses. If Apple delivers in a way Google never could with Glass, HoloLens may find itself at a disadvantage, not because it’s too little, but perhaps because it’s too late.
Build quality and comfort
HoloLens is essentially comprised of two rings: a thicker, plastic outer one that contains the guts and a slimmer, cushioned inner one that wraps your head. The inner ring’s fit adjusts by sliding forward and backward a roller residing on its back.
That cushioning is a small touch, but one I appreciate for making it easier to forget you’re wearing the viewer and focus on the AR imagery in front of you.
The device isn’t supposed to sit on your nose, but I found its rubber nose guard to inevitably fall down my nose no matter how often I pried the HoloLens forward. Thankfully, it’s optional and comes off easily. HoloLens feels a lot better for me with it off.
It looks like it belongs in the office but would blend well in any living room.
I also struggled to get HoloLens to fit every time I put it on. I had to regularly re-tighten, re-situate and realign the headgear. When everything fit nicely, the AR imagery was in full view and it felt right. But if it was too tight, too high up or too far forward, my experience was hindered.
Standing still made for the best overall viewing experience. The adjustment issues cropped up especially when I would move around, effectively defeating the point in HoloLens.
If you have short hair or it’s pulled back, you might not have as much trouble as someone with long, loose hair, like myself. It may have been my ability to adjust, but I had a slight headache after I took HoloLens off, like I had been wearing a baseball cap that was two sizes too small.
The headgear I used was untethered, and I didn’t need my hands for anything other than selecting my “hologram” to move it. It wasn’t wired up for battery life, like the first early prototypes shown to press.
Fitting issues aside, when HoloLens fits right, it’s comfortable. But, like all virtual reality (VR) and AR headgear, its weight is front loaded. You can’t help but feel a noticeable weight hanging off your forehead.
The weight isn’t uncomfortable, but it is significant. If Microsoft can somehow counterbalance the weight on the sides or back, it would likely alleviate the front-heavy sensation.
I wear glasses, and I used HoloLens with them on. They don’t press into my face or feel tight around my head, unlike with most VR headsets. I also didn’t get nauseous, a frequent occurrence when I wear Oculus Rift.
It helps that I can still see my surroundings with HoloLens, so I don’t feel disoriented or claustrophobic. If only the HoloLens see-through screen weren’t so dark (but the room was dimly lit, so it may be just right for a brighter room).
Walking backward in HoloLens feels most uneasy, as I can’t quickly turn to see whether something is behind me. The headgear also obstructs my upper peripheral view, so some of my vision is obscured.
HoloLens looks and feels like a premium device. Nothing about it screams “cheap”, which is reflected by the developer edition’s price.
The gadget looks like it belongs in the office but would also blend well in any living room. As is, HoloLens feels too delicate to stay clean and unscathed in, say, a construction site.
I find myself handling HoloLens gently, so unless Microsoft does some ruggedizing, you’ll probably want to keep HoloLens out of the reach of youngsters.
The “hologram” – which these are not by the strictest definition – in my HoloLens experience consisted of two floating spheres, two yellow slides and some blocks stacked on a pad of paper.
It was called “Project Origami,” and so was meant to look and sound like folded paper.
To give the holograms (which turned into a game) functions, I added controls (gaze, gesture and voice), spatial sound, spatial mapping and the ability to pick up, move and place the holograms around the room.
This wasn’t Minority Report-level selecting and swiping, but impressive nonetheless.
Finally, an underworld was added to the hologram so that, when the spheres fell, an explosion created a gaping hole in the floor that the they descended into. Looking down the hole revealed a new world, complete with rolling hills and cranes soaring underneath my feet.
The HoloLens images projected onto the real world around me are vibrant, sharp and realistic – though, a little jittery. When I move around them, the holographic shapes behave like real objects, so I can see their backsides – or not at all, if they’re obstructed by other holograms.
When the paper spheres roll onto the floor, they roll around just like real balls would, bouncing around objects and looking real enough to pick up. When I peer into the underworld that opened up on the floor, it’s like I’m looking into, as my HoloLens “mentor” put it, a world I didn’t know was there the whole time.
But, looking at holograms slapped on top of the real world is just one half of the HoloLens equation. Controlling the holograms is the other.
Controlling and touching holograms
The HoloLens gaze controls are responsive and should be easy for any user to get the hang of almost immediately. It’s the other kinds of input where HoloLens has slightly more trouble.
While voice controls work, there is a lag between giving them and the hologram executing your commands. I had to say, “Let it roll!” to send the spheres down the slides, and there was a second-long pause before they took a tumble. It isn’t major, but enough to make me feel like I should repeat myself.
Gesture control is the hardest to get right, even though my experience was but a one-fingered, downward swipe. It took time to figure out the best distance to swipe away from HoloLens and where to put my finger for it to register.