San Francisco, CA – March 30 has come and gone, and with it, the long-awaited shipment of the Microsoft HoloLens.
At Build 2016, Microsoft didn’t spend so much on big new reveals for the headset – aside from the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, and that it had partnered with a few more organizations to create interesting or useful apps such as the Holographic Anatomy app to be used by the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at the University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Instead, Microsoft had just entered the next phase of its own holographic journey – convincing the public that it is relevant.
To do so, it demoed the technology to hundreds of reporters from around the world, myself included. Access was still very exclusive – you needed special badges to enter a closely guarded room, accompanied by a mentor, one for every two reporters – but the tone was much more open. Microsoft was inviting us to share our experience.
The (heavily guided) tour
Rather than lining up at various stations with concept demos such as the NASA Mars experience, Minecraft, or the aforementioned medical training (which is what I imagined) the tour consisted of sitting down in front of a monitor, mouse and keyboard with a HoloLens charging right beside it.
Over the course of an hour and a half, presenters and mentors guided us through Unity and Visual Studio to enable different components of an already-created hologram to get a sense of the simplicity of creating one ourselves, and to network them together in order to interact with them as a group.
This was somewhat disappointing. Most of the time was spent aside from the headset in code, with many of us not technical enough to appreciate the complexity or lack thereof. Granted, Build is geared towards developers, but this portion does little to convince the public of the HoloLens’ usefulness.
One hologram we were able to increasingly interact with was an animated circular “energy hub” consisting of a sci-fi ring-shaped base with a spinning centre. Hovering above it was a glowing translucent blue sphere that pulsated and emitted little glowing triangles. There was even “spacial” sounds emitting from the HoloLens.
The other was called “Poly”, a floating avatar we could choose for ourselves, that resembled a cross between a sci-fi helmet and a motorcycle engine with glowing lights. Once chosen it would hover just above our heads.
What I liked
Despite the tedium of checking boxes in Unity to enable components, exporting, refreshing over the course of the tour to see how a hologram becomes increasingly interactive, it was still interesting once all the pieces came together and the hologram became not only interactive, but a shared experience with a set location between a group of people.
The HoloLens did a great job mapping our surroundings, with the occasional very cool-looking polygon mesh popping up in our view that covered objects and people surrounding us letting us know it was actively learning about our surroundings.
Thanks to the spot-on spacial mapping, HoloLens also did a great job of making holograms believable because it kept the objects relative to our location and gaze. Even though the holograms we interacted with did not have the most realistic graphics, being able to walk around it, in 3D, made it very believable. Add to that HoloLens’ translucent nature, these objects looked like they were part of the room.
The gesture tracking also worked well overall. The air tap, which simulates a mouse click always registered, as did a “bloom” where one held one’s palm upwards and spread one’s fingers outwards from the centre, and always took me to the home menu, even though I wasn’t really supposed to. Being a tech demo, the options were very limited, so some gestures I was trying to go to the previous menu were noticeably absent.
What turned me off
There was rarely a moment where I escaped the feeling that the Microsoft Holographic technology is still in its infancy.
There were many reminders of this, such as in the hardware. The resolution of what we were viewing was quite limited. We are waiting to get confirmation but there are reports that the maximum resolution supported on the headset is 1268×720 per eye. Unless other tech demos differ greatly from our own, the field of view that can be enhanced by holograms is about the same as if you made a rectangle with the thumb and index fingers of each hand and held it up about 6 inches away from your face.
Microsoft has been criticized for its pre-rendered promotional videos that show the HoloLens seemingly altering a person’s reality completely. Instead of this, it’s more akin to having a translucent rectangle in front of you through which you can see holograms, but they are cut off at the edges.
This could also be due to how I was wearing the HoloLens. While the build quality shone through, I was never quite sure if I had it sitting correctly on my face. There were several moments while I tried to adjust to get a better view. This is an area that Microsoft could have improved on.
The thing is also heavy. I could not imagine extended wear, so perhaps it was good the demo was broken up by bits of code. In its current iteration, I couldn’t imagine many use cases that would involve the wearer moving about very much. It was interesting to note that we were constantly reminded to plug the device back in to allow it to charge.
This was my first experience with the HoloLens. Since I did not experience the device a year ago, it’s difficult for me to gauge how far it has come in the past year and how far it will have gone around this time in 2017.
As one of our editors put it, he looked through the HoloLens and saw the future.
I tend to agree, in theory.
I see the future of holographic technology significantly improving on the HoloLens 1.0 to live up to the potential it is hinting at today. In a couple year’s time, I expect the technology to be much more seamless – today it still feels like a tool out of an old sci-fi movie: it’s at once capable of very specific cool things that current technology can’t replicate, but is very limited in form factor, hardware and ease of use that was available to inventors and imaginations of the era.
At $3,000 it will be hard to convince anyone but the biggest enterprises to use the HoloLens, and it’s equally doubtful whether the public, which voted Galaxy Explorer, a space SIM, to be built on holographic technology, will ever get a taste of it outside of company events.
Microsoft’s work here is far from complete.