There was a fish in the bathtub. That was one of the first things we saw in the hotel room after we put on Microsoft’s developer-ready version of HoloLens, the augmented reality headset it believes will transform the way we learn, work, and play.
We had the chance to use HoloLens for a couple of hours earlier this week in San Francisco, where Microsoft was hosting its annual developers conference. The $3,000 headset just started shipping to Microsoft developers and commercial customers, though it’s not yet widely available to consumers. For now, Microsoft still sees this primarily as a device for business or educational use, with some gaming thrown in for good measure.
Both of us had worn HoloLens briefly before, but we were told this headset, and the experience that came with it, would be vastly improved over last year’s prototype. Curled up in a black box, the HoloLens looks like a pair of thick, futuristic headphones. It’s once you pull the thing out of the box that you get a sense of how nerdy it is, and briefly envision a world in which humans walk around wearing RoboCop-like face computers.
Still, the HoloLens didn’t look... totally bizarre? Maybe that’s because it’s now natural to compare it to the Oculus Rift, which strips you of your humanity by enveloping the entirety of your eye sockets, a giant box where your face should be. Or maybe we really are nerds already inured to idea of headsets. Probably the latter.
The future is here, and we're all wearing face computers
The headset is comprised of two main parts: a close-fitting, black, plastic band that wraps around your head like a halo, and an exterior band, which supports the goggles, or lens. There’s a nifty click-wheel on the back of the band that lets you adjust the fit of the HoloLens, and two small volume buttons on the right side.
The pair we wore this week was undoubtedly more comfortable than earlier prototypes. It feels soft around the head, and can either rest lightly on the bridge of your nose or hover just above it. We both noted that it probably wouldn’t leave any goggle marks on our faces like our Oculus-testing colleagues, that is, until Tom eventually pulled HoloLens off to reveal a bright pink pressure welt across his forehead. Adjustment is really the key, and you’ll need to fiddle around a bit to make sure it’s comfortable, and held in place so you get the best field of view.
Speaking of field of view, it’s still a problem, but it’s getting better. Microsoft has tweaked both the hardware and software since last year, and the clipping didn’t feel as annoying. During certain games you don’t always see the full hologram, even if you step back, and if you get too close they simply fade away.
Even more important than the hardware is the software, since Microsoft sees HoloLens as a key device in its grand vision of the future of computing (and, let’s face it: Microsoft needs to excite its community of developers, since Windows Phone hasn’t become a winning platform for them). The HoloLens projects what is, essentially, the Windows 10 platform into the physical space around you. It’s the main way you access apps and games. It’s full of Live Tiles just like the Windows 10 Start menu, and even Wi-Fi connectivity information, battery life, and time / date.
Unlike Oculus Rift or other VR headsets, you’re not fully transported into another another world — you’re still in the same environment, and you can see things like walls and chairs, but there are digital elements layered on top of them. And unlike the Rift or HTC Vive, a computerized hand accessory isn’t required in order to use your hand. Air-tapping your index finger in front of you, in a REDRUM-like gesture, lets you select things; while holding your palm upwards and pinching your fingers together, then letting them go, will bring you back to the Start menu. That move is called the "bloom." You can summon the Start menu at any time by using this bloom gesture, or ask Cortana to "go home."
The first application we tried while wearing HoloLens was actually pretty simple: it was the Microsoft Edge browser, projected onto a blank wall in the room. One of us browsed ESPN, the other checked out The Verge, and both of us stood there, staring at the same wall, looking at different virtual web pages. Irritatingly, when you move your head just a little bit, the browser window in front of you moves with it. Score one for virtual reality headsets.
The fish in the bathtub wasn’t the only Easter egg; there was a puppy on the living room floor, which Lauren replaced with a pet tiger. We started to build a new app in HoloLens studio, which, if it’s all not meta enough already, is a holographic app for building holographic apps. You can even 3D-print whatever you’ve created to bring it to life beyond a virtual hologram.
We also played a first-person shooter game, RoboRaid, which was previewed before as Project X-Ray. On stage at E3 last year it looked gimmicky, but playing it for the first time really showed off some of the HoloLens’ best features. Those air-tap gestures are used to blast robots with your hands, and you can physically dodge explosions heading towards you. At certain parts the enemies even appear behind you, and thanks to the impressive spatial sound array in the headset you can hear them behind you.
mixed reality gets tiring after awhile
Skype is also available on HoloLens, too, and we were able to talk to our colleagues back in New York and scribble over their faces. This seems like another good example of how HoloLens could be used in either the real world or business environments. We used Skype for doodling, but meanwhile, NASA engineers on Earth are connecting with astronauts in space to make real use of this ability for guided tutorials. This is also something you can’t do with VR right now, whereas with HoloLens, you can still see the real world around you and annotate projects in Skype.
After awhile, though, it felt a bit strange living in mixed reality. And the actual reality of wearing a headset for an extended period of time became more apparent when we tried to talk, either to each other or to the computer in front of us. When we both told Cortana to record video at around the same time, the virtual assistant seemed to get our audio lines crossed. Then again, virtual assistants don’t always get it right in the real world, either.
Photos by Vjeran Pavic