Hands-On with Microsoft HoloLens: Third Time’s the Charm

Hands-On with Microsoft HoloLens: Third Time's the Charm

On Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to go hands-on with the HoloLens augmented reality headset for a third time because Microsoft is opening an experience showcase for developers in New York. If you’ve been following along with my HoloLens adventures over the past year, you’ll want to read this latest update.

First, a quick recap.

Back in January, I was blown away by Microsoft’s HoloLens in my first hands-on experience. But after a second try, in late April, I was disappointed: The field of vision was just far too small. That is, as you look forward out through the HoloLens headset, you can of course see peripherally, but the area in which you can see holograms is a small rectangle in the middle of your vision. It’s like looking through a small portal, or a submarine periscope.

Since then, I’ve grown increasingly agitated by the way Microsoft promotes HoloLens. And I feel that it’s on-stage and video demos do not accurately portray that “looking through a small portal” effect that is the reality of using HoloLens.

But now I’ve tried HoloLens for a third time, and I’ve spoken directly to Microsoft about my concerns.

Here’s what happened.

First, the field of vision remains unchanged: You are still confined to seeing holograms only through a rectangle in the center of your vision. If you are not looking directly at a hologram, or are not looking directly at the hologram, it will be completely invisible or partially cut-off. In this sense, nothing has changed, and I can at least confirm that what I’ve been writing and saying about HoloLens since that April experience is accurate.


But as it turns out, the field of vision, Microsoft tells me, hasn’t actually changed over time. The difference between my January and April hands-on experiences is that the first was done on tethered, pre-release hardware, whereas the April (and now December) experience was with “final” hardware. (Microsoft has not in fact changed the hardware at all since April, which was my expectation.) And that bulky, pre-release version of HoloLens reduced the user’s peripheral vision. So in the final hardware (for lack of a better term), you can take full advantage of your full peripheral vision. And the net effect is that the holographic rectangle—that field of vision, as I call it—just seems smaller.

That sounds reasonable to me. I am curious why Microsoft didn’t reach out to explain that as I and many others complained about how things had “changed,” but whatever.

Second, my experiences with HoloLens this week were all very positive, and I think it’s important to highlight why this is so and why I still think that this technology is super-impress. Before getting to that, let’s briefly discuss how expectations can color one’s experiences.

I was so blown away by my January HoloLens experience—and, seriously, you have no idea how uninterested I was going into that first demo—that I had very high expectations for the final hardware. But the April demo was disappointing, because of the perception that the field of view had shrunk. So my earlier perception colored my second experience. (Side-note: Again, I sort of feel like Microsoft could have better set expectations up-front as they must have known about this issued ahead of time. But whatever.)

After April, I’ve been fairly critical of HoloLens, for two reasons: The experience disappointed me, as noted, and Microsoft’s public and video demos of the technology are, I still think, deceptive. But here’s the thing: Developers who have experienced HoloLens—either through Microsoft’s recent HoloLens Developer Roadshow, or via other means—have told the software giant, overwhelmingly, that they love it.

How is that?

My theory is that their experiences were colored by expectations as well. That in reading reviews of HoloLens by myself and others, they were attuned to believe that the experience was terrible, because of that tiny (apparently smaller than before) field of view. But that when they actually used HoloLens, they had my January experience: It wasbetter than they expected.

So here’s the thing. HoloLens works.

What I mean by that is that, yes, it has a small field of view. And yes, that field of view certainly limits what you can see. It’s not a fully immersive virtual reality experience. But it is awesome in its own right, and it is absolutely immersive, if in a different way.

Two things put HoloLens over the top, and not coincidentally, these things both help to overcome—no, not completely—the small field of view.

First, the holograms are “sticky”—or what Microsoft calls persistent, meaning that they always correctly interact with the real world. If a hologram appears to be sitting on a table, or whatever, it alwaysappears to be sitting on that table, no matter how you move around it. That stickiness roots the holograms in the real world, in your eye and your brain, and makes them effectively real. This is the fundamental computer science genius of HoloLens, I think, and the reason we’re even having this conversation today.

Second, the shipping HoloLens unit has a spatial sound capability that makes sounds appear to come from any direction. It’s like stickiness, but for audio. That is, if a hologram is making some sound, it will always seem to come from the right place in the room, no matter where you are in that room and what direction you’re facing.

Both effects are incredible. And when you combine them—poof!—the holograms come to life. And are … real. Or, seem real. Really real.

This is the room in which I used HoloStudio.
This is the room in which I used HoloStudio.

For my third HoloLens experience, I went through three hands-on labs over the course of an hour. Each was impressive. Each served as a reminder that that damn field of view is problematic, especially for large, room-filling holograms—where the portal effect just gets in the way—and for multiple small holograms that are scattered around, or in the case of games, move around the room. But each also served as a reminder that—goddamn—this is impressive technology.

The first lab was for something called HoloStudio, which lets you build and interact with 3D objects in space, something a creator might use to design physical objects—impressive enough—and then place them in the real world, holographically, to see how they really work before actually building them.

HoloStudio lets you build 3D objects and see how they interact with the real world.
HoloStudio lets you build 3D objects and see how they interact with the real world.

The second was the Project X-Ray video game that Microsoft famously demoed during its October hardware event. I was not—am still not—a fan for the third person view of this demo. But in using it, with aliens bursting through all four walls of a room, and shooting at you as you duck and weave—and to be clear, you really feel the need to do this, as they seem to be really shooting at you—one gets lost in the moment. If I handed this admittedly basic and incomplete “game” to my 17 year old son, I wouldn’t see him again for a week. It’s actually pretty incredible.

OK, it doesn't look this good, really. But it is surprisingly fun to play.
OK, it doesn’t look this good, really. But it is surprisingly fun to play.

The final lab was a few interactive stories: A retailing demo for a watch and an educational-focus virtual solar system you could walk through. Both were likewise incredible on a number of levels, and in the watch demo you could sample the edit tools to fine-tune the presentation of a luxury item that might be sold in-person in a store. And the solar system bit. I mean, come on. We should all experience this kind of wonder from time-to-time. (I wish I had a good picture of this one.)

Ultimately, HoloLens is all about the future, and while my criticisms of the product this past year represent my misgivings about the way Microsoft is perhaps over-selling its abilities today, let’s be clear: The basics are there. And while it will be a year or more—I’m guessing two—before consumers get their hands on this device, Microsoft is (if belatedly) right to push this on developers now. Because when you get this tool into the hands of truly creative and innovative people, good things are going to happen.

Indeed, they’re already happening. Since undergoing its multi-city HoloLens Developer Roadshow, Microsoft has signed up many excited developers, and the ideas are pouring in. The space in which I experienced HoloLens will be used as the first long-term HoloLens experience showcase for developers, and as you may have guessed it’s located at Microsoft’s flagship store in New York. So starting this right now, developers who want to try HoloLens can sign-up for some hands-on time of their own. And that’s good timing, as the first HoloLens developer kits heading out in Q1 2016. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.


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