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Microsoft and Volvo's new HoloLens showroom is fascinating and frustrating

Microsoft and Volvo's new HoloLens showroom is fascinating and frustrating

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You could buy a car in mixed reality, but should you?

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Cars have a long history with augmented and virtual reality. Designers rely on immersive systems, from CAVE rooms to augmented reality headsets, to visualize their work. Drivers have been using heads-up displays for decades, even if they’re projected onto a windshield and not a pair of glasses.

Bringing Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to the auto industry, though, feels much bigger. Unlike more specialized augmented reality tools, it’s something that Microsoft eventually hopes ordinary people will buy and use. And the quality of its images is nearly unprecedented; you can almost suspend disbelief and imagine the objects it projects are real. That’s what makes the company’s latest partnership so potentially exciting — and, at the same time, so frustrating.

For about six months, says Volvo global marketing vice president Thomas Andersson, Microsoft and Volvo have been working on a way to incorporate what they call "mixed reality" into the process of choosing a car. The result, first seen today, is a virtual showroom straight out of science fiction. Located at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, it’s a series of podiums and a fenced, raised platform clearly meant to support some shiny automotive prototype.

The catch, of course, is that they’re all empty. Instead, a car dealer and potential buyer don HoloLens headsets, both of them seeing and interacting with the same holographic cars. The main stage holds a life-size projection of Volvo’s unreleased S90 sedan, which buyers can see with different rims and paint jobs by using Microsoft’s "air tap" gesture. Another demo strips away the outside of the car to reveal its engine and undercarriage, and another projects a short animation showing off some of the car’s more unusual features, like a system that uses data from other cars to alert drivers about ice patches.

"People aren't reading car manuals anymore, and there's so much they miss."

Volvo has already experimented with virtual reality — last year, it released a Google Cardboard app that simulated driving its XC90 SUV. Now, it sees complementary applications for HoloLens. "People aren't reading car manuals or user manuals much anymore, and there's so much they miss," Volvo senior marketing VP Björn Annwall tells me. The demos are a "human, interactive," and undeniably novel replacement. A miniature holographic S90, for example, shows off its many sensors by lighting them up as viewers move around its sides and back. Like everything else in HoloLens, these models are astonishingly solid; I was faintly aware of real-world walls and floors, but only the way I might notice the screen behind a high-powered projector.

Microsoft dislikes the term "augmented reality," which immediately evokes visions of awkward smartphone apps and the lackluster Google Glass. As HoloLens senior director Scott Erickson says, augmented reality "blocks your view" with an overlay, while HoloLens can spatially map and respond to your surroundings. This is what lets its holographic car stay on that stage as you walk around it, without using special physical markers or external cameras. I noticed a little drift as I moved around the room, but not enough to be distracting.

But as with many HoloLens demos, objects are coherent only at a very specific distance and angle. The very thing you want to do with the showroom model — walk up close and get a sense of its scale — chops it into pieces or makes it disappear altogether. The headset’s lenses are easy to adjust, they’re just incredibly unforgiving. I couldn’t quite find a fit that didn’t have me craning my neck to see a whole object, even if it was a Volvo logo the size of a dinner plate. Maintaining the showroom’s illusion requires unflagging concentration.

Microsoft has taken a lot of criticism (including a fair amount from me) for HoloLens’ constricted field of view, but it’s a problem that seems theoretically solvable, even if the company has suggested we won’t see dramatic improvement in the near future. Likewise, developers can deal with the issue gracefully by showing small, self-contained objects; I’m particularly fond of an architectural modeling tool co-created by mapping company Trimble. But Microsoft has been consistently reluctant to talk about working within its prototype’s limitations, or to acknowledge that those limits exist at all.

It's possible to work within HoloLens' limits, but Microsoft seems reluctant to acknowledge them

Volvo’s miniatures are ingenious, but it’s hard to say whether HoloLens, rather than a virtual reality headset, is the best option to look at a full-sized car. Microsoft and Volvo both make compelling arguments: it’s wireless and doesn’t block out the real world, rendering single objects is much less resource-intensive than creating a whole environment, and it can be deployed anywhere, not just spaces with tracking systems. But that doesn’t change the fact that it fails to deliver something that you can seamlessly walk up to and explore, which is the one thing that really matters. It’s actually easier for me to feel the scale and physicality of a complete object in a fake world than to examine parts of one in the real world.

HoloLens today feels like virtual reality headsets did two years ago: raw material that designers are trying to hammer into submission instead of testing for strengths and weaknesses. Many VR developers now tend to be unflinchingly honest about things that don’t work, taking pride in describing the way they’ve adapted their games to minimize nausea or handle extremely simple controls. With HoloLens development kits becoming more widely available next year, we should start getting more experiments, fewer secrets, and more frank discussion of the device’s potential.

For now, Volvo hopes to publicly unveil some kind of HoloLens experience next year, although the exact date and the details of what we’ll see remain unclear. "We wouldn't be in this with Microsoft right now if we didn't believe in it," says Andersson. "It's a matter of time and maturity, of course, but I think we really want to put this in front of customers in 2016."

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