It’s been nearly a year since Microsoft surprised everyone by announcing the HoloLens, a sort of helmet-computer that projects virtual images on top of the real world around you.
Microsoft calls them holograms, even if that term is technically incorrect. Some people call it mixed reality. Others call it augmented reality. The category is so fresh and new that no one, even the people working on it, has any real idea how to classify it, or even knows where it’ll go next.
But when you try HoloLens and other similar gadgets, you can tell there’s a lot of potential to create a device that could once day eliminate the need for all the screens that surround us.
It’s the ultimate gadget — something that projects whatever you want, when you want it, right in front of your peepers.
That’s why Microsoft is starting with the group of people who can make or break any new platform: app developers. Microsoft learned this the hard way when it couldn’t get developers to make apps for its failed Windows Phone operating system. What good is a phone (or any gadget) without the latest and greatest apps? Microsoft missed out big time on mobile computing, so the hope is it can aggressively take on the next level of computing by putting prototypes in the hands of the right people right now.
On Thursday, Microsoft will open up a new section of its flagship store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue to developers interested in making programs for the HoloLens. They’ll be able to go through a handful of different experiences designed to show off the variety of things the HoloLens can do, which will hopefully inspire them to get cracking on their own experiences next year when the $3,000 developer edition of the HoloLens goes on sale.
On Wednesday, I got a sneak peek at the same experience developers (who register to visit the Microsoft Store) will see when they strap on the HoloLens for the first time. It wasn’t quite as mind-blowing as the fully-immersive visuals you see with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but that’s not the point. Microsoft designed the HoloLens so you can keep your peripheral view while moving freely around your environment.
And that’s in stark contrast to virtual reality headsets today: The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require you to remain tethered to a computer. The HoloLens is the computer. I was able to walk around the room all I wanted without worrying about bumping into or tripping over anything.
The most jarring thing about the HoloLens was the optics weren’t that great. I was expecting the crystal-clear images I’ve seen in VR headsets and a room full of virtual images displayed on the screen hovering over my eyes, just like you see in all those promotional videos from Microsoft. (I wasn't allowed to take photos or video in my demo, so all the stuff you see here are just more promotional materials from Microsoft.)
Instead, I was shocked by how narrow the field of view was. In one of the experiences I tested, I was looking at an augmented reality story, which is sort of like a next-generation PowerPoint presentation. In this scenario, I was told to imagine I was working for a watch company and demoing a new design to clients. A large-scale model of the watch hovered over the table in front of me, but if I moved my head slightly, chunks of it would disappear from my view. I had to step back from the table if I wanted to see the whole thing.
But the most impressive thing about the HoloLens is the sense of presence you get when looking at virtual objects. The headset has cameras all over it that scan the walls around the room so you can roam freely while the virtual stuff remains in place. In one demo, I was painting a virtual model of an X-Wing fighter from “Star Wars.” I was able to place the model in the center of the room and walk around it adding new colors and other effects as if it were really there in physical space.
In another demo, I played a version of the game “Project X-Ray,” which was first shown at Microsoft’s Surface event a few months ago. The HoloLens scanned the surfaces around the room, and soon a bunch of alien robot things were busting through the walls trying to shoot at me. I could dodge their blasts by moving my head and body around and fire back by aiming my head at them and pulling the trigger on an Xbox controller.
I probably looked like a total doofus to an outsider with all my ducking and weaving around, but I didn’t really care. I was having a blast. It was a level of interactivity I’ve never felt in a game.
As intriguing as the HoloLens is in its current form, it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do.
Since you don’t have any kind of physical controller, you have to control everything with a combination of your voice, head movements, and what Microsoft calls an “air click.” (Sticking your index finger straight in the air and then tapping it down so the cameras on the HoloLens can detect it.) It wasn’t nearly as natural as swiping around the touchscreen of a phone or using a keyboard or mouse.
It’s also hard to imagine many consumer applications for the HoloLens. We’re still probably over a year away from a consumer version of the device, but developers will have to make a bunch of killer applications to convince people to shell out thousands of dollars for a computer you wear on your head. (That would explain why the company is putting so much effort into courting developers so early.) In the near term, Microsoft seems to be focused on enterprise applications for the HoloLens, which is why its early partners include groups like NASA and Volvo. That makes much more sense now given the device’s limitations.
It’ll be a few more years before the optics, controls, form factor, and pricing all line up to a viable consumer product, but after spending about 30 minutes with HoloLens, it's clear that gadgets like it are pretty close to what a lot of us will be using one day.