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Virtual reality is for watching things. HoloLens is for making them

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Augmented reality isn't immersive, and that's exactly why it works

At a SXSW panel in March, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey weighed in on the HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that Microsoft revealed in January. Unsurprisingly, he was more excited about virtual reality tech like the Oculus Rift. The reason? There were better things to do in VR. "Nobody has ever proven a killer application for augmented reality. Most proposed [augmented reality] killer apps, it’s not that they’re not cool, they’re just kind of boring," he said. "It’s things like assisting you with how to use a tool or telling you where you’re walking or where do I go, the best restaurant nearby. We’re not excited by those things as much."

Microsoft's demos aren't, in fact, nearly as overwhelming as something like Oculus' short film Lost. You can play around with art or architecture, but you're rarely transported to another world. A Skype home maintenance demo admittedly sounds a little on the mundane side. But being boring is exactly what could help HoloLens succeed — and potentially enter the mainstream in a way that virtual reality can't.

Judging from its performance at last week's Microsoft Build conference, the HoloLens still isn't exactly user-friendly. It's got a limited range of controls and, in its latest iteration, a narrow field of view that makes it hard to see large objects. But every single demo I tried was interactive, even if it was as small as tapping to drop an origami ball. At a panel, Microsoft pulled in a medical researcher and a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk about building apps for their work. The message was clear: HoloLens is as much a productivity tool as your PC or tablet.

Augmented reality can't rely on the uncanny feeling of "being there"The big three consumer virtual reality players — Oculus, Sony, and Valve — have taken a very different approach. VR has a wide range of control options, many of them better than HoloLens'. But the most impressive and high-profile work tends to be minimally interactive, particularly as the immersive film genre grows. Oculus, a company once focused almost completely on gaming, now owns its own VR movie studio. Even the interactive experiences are usually more focused on consuming media than producing it. Valve recently showcased painting program TiltBrush on its Vive headset, but that's a rare exception. "Presence," the byword of virtual reality, is an apt word here — a lot of experiences are based simply on the feeling of being somewhere.

Some of this is a matter of audience. Microsoft is showing HoloLens almost exclusively to developers, while VR is already looking for a wide audience. But the differences run deeper than that. VR headsets do two things: magnify a small display to fill the wearer's field of vision and prevent them from seeing anything else. The results are wonderfully immersive, but unlike the HoloLens, they're still too blurry to make out fine detail. Because our physical actions don't match what we see, motion sickness remains an issue. And it takes more work to render a whole virtual environment than a single object.

Perhaps most importantly, though, VR's immersion makes it hard to do basic human multitasking. Even working behind a screen, most of us are still absently checking in with the real world: stretching, sipping a drink, petting a cat. These aren't unwelcome distractions; they're reminders that we're not just brains in jars. And they make it easier to spend long hours in front of a project.

On a basic level, hand motions feel easier when you can see your hands. But augmented reality also opens up ways to merge our existing control schemes into something new. One of the weirdest features of Microsoft's architecture demo is that you can slide a mouse off the edge of your existing 2D monitor and onto a hologram. It's not an ideal way to interact with everything, but the fact that you can switch between input methods without fumbling in the dark (or even turning on an external camera, as you can do with the Gear VR headset) eases the short-term pressure to find a single perfect control scheme. We're already used to interacting with windows placed on top of the real world — that's the entire premise of computer screens — so moving these things off the screen isn't a conceptually difficult adjustment.

It's easy to forget how much basic multitasking we performVirtual reality is already a vital part of some industries, and it's clearly the better choice for tasks like architectural walkthroughs. Independent developers have worked on VR art and medical tools. Google Glass showed how deeply ambivalent we are toward making augmented reality part of our daily life. Neither virtual nor augmented reality will replace TVs and computers any time soon. But for the simple act of making something, it's easier to imagine strapping on a HoloLens than an Oculus Rift. With tools like AR Minecraft and the simple Holo Studio art program, that's a future Microsoft is clearly working toward.

The results probably will be a little boring, at least compared to watching a VR blockbuster or visiting the Grand Canyon. For every real-world Minecraft environment, there might be an Ikea instruction manual or a social network full of six-second looping cat holograms. Then again, one of the greatest killer apps of all time was a spreadsheet program. It wasn't spectacular; it was just useful.

The technology behind present-day virtual and augmented reality could eventually converge, although it will take some work to merge the sensory deprivation of the first with the light glasses and slightly transparent aura of the second. So far, though, virtual reality has given us a fascinating, novel way to consume media. If we're going to move beyond consumption, HoloLens is looking like the most likely choice so far.