Hands-On with (a Near Final) Microsoft HoloLens

Hands-On with (a Near Final) Microsoft HoloLens

If you’ve been following the news from Build this week, you know that Microsoft’s innovative augmented reality solution, HoloLens, was one of the high points of the opening day keynote. But in using HoloLens now for a second time, I’ve discovered that while some things have improved quite dramatically, Microsoft has also cut some corners and introduced some deficiencies too.

I wrote about my first experience with HoloLens back in January in Hands-On with Microsoft HoloLens. At the time, I was blown away by the immersive experience, which was much more powerful than I had thought would be possible.

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So it’s time for round two. As with my first HoloLens experience, I wasn’t able to take any pictures, record any video, or otherwise document the experience digitally. But unlike that first experience, I came away quite a bit less impressed.


Don’t get me wrong, HoloLens has improved in some important ways since January. First and most obviously, we got to use near-final hardware this time, and not the bulky prototype that looked like something from a sci-fi movie. What we used was what customers will be able to buy later this year, at least from a hardware perspective.

The biggest improvement, however, was actually the spatial sound experience. If you think about interacting with holograms in a 3D environment—i.e. real life—you tend to think about the visual stuff, but of course sound—and ambience, which is not sound, but can be impacted by sounds—plays a big role in the experience as well. And the sound stuff is amazing. When you turn away from objects making sounds, the sound audibly moves accordingly so that it is coming from behind you if you turn your back to the source of the sound.

What’s interesting to me about the spatial sound capabilities of HoloLens is that no one could have predicted that this would be the device’s most unassailable win. It reminds me of the voice control capabilities in Kinect, where you assume that the big deal is hand gestures but then realize over time that voice works much better. Gestures are the point of Kinect, yes. But voice works better.

So it is with spatial sound in HoloLens. By itself, the special sound capabilities aren’t the point, but they do help sell the immersiveness of the broader experience. My point is only that, of the things that HoloLens does, spatial sound is the most successful. It works very, very well.

For this week’s hands-on time with HoloLens, I opted for the two-hour version of the developer preview. This was ostensibly twice as much time as I spent with HoloLens than in January, but I probably only spent about an hour actually using the device.

(Actual developers did a four hour version that apparently involved writing actual code. But even the two version was a bit too stuffed with time wasting moments in Unity and Visual Studio, doing nothing of importance.)

It was a better introduction to HoloLens than the January event in some ways because it stepped us through the device’s capabilities one-by-one in a very measured fashion. But it also served to highlight a problem in the shipping version of the hardware: The field of vision is 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.

This is roughly what it looked like. (The viewing area is perhaps a bit wider than shown here. It is not taller, however.)


In other words, if there were holograms in this “scene,” you can only see them if they’re visually within that rectangle in the middle. If they are outside that are, you cannot see them.

What this means is that you have to move your head around a lot. Holographic objects that were not dead center with the prototype in January were visible. But with the final hardware, you can’t see anything that is not right in the middle of your field of vision. It’s … constraining. It’s also disappointing, given how much better it was previously.

(I could see eye-tracking technology in a v2 version improve the head-moving bit. But not eliminate it, since you still need a way to move a virtual cursor to select holographic objects.)

Since experiencing this, I polled everyone I could who had also used the HoloLens. Without any prodding towards a pre-defined answer, I tried to determine if my experience was common to theirs. And it was. 100 percent.

So this is a problem, and I’m guessing that Microsoft will get enough feedback about this issue that they will address it. Oddly—and a few I discussed this with agreed—the biggest improvement would be to expand the field of view vertically (up/down), not horizontally (left/right).

Again. Please don’t get me wrong. HoloLens was still incredibly impressive. Hologram image quality is amazing, and the display is rock-solid: If a hologram appears to be on a table, it stays in place as you move around in all directions. The edge-mapping stuff is a delight, like being in the Matrix. Really, really impressive.

They just need to fix that field of view issue.

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