One year after showing off HoloLens, Microsoft’s augmented reality rig remains very much a work in progress. It’s not a virtual reality rig, it’s something entirely different. Just what it is, though, will be up to the software developers who’ll truly define the device.
That’s why Microsoft is launching the HoloLens Developer Experience Showcase, a two month hands-on event next door to its flagship store in Manhattan. This is the first time Microsoft’s let the public play with HoloLens, and hopes to get people excited about it and working on killer apps.
We’ve run down how HoloLens works with an in-depth hands-on earlier this year, explained why it isn’t a gimmick, and told you when the dev kit arrives, but it’s worth repeating that HoloLens isn’t virtual reality. It’s augmented reality. It’s a subtle but vital distinction. HoloLens presents a virtual projection of computer-generated “holograms” that look and act like they’re part of the real world and may or may not look like the latest renderings from Redmond. Unlike VR, it isn’t an immersive experience that shuts you off from the world. You can see the people around you and carry on conversations while looking them in the eye. Digital objects take on an expansive sense of scale and depth because you can move around them and view them from different angles, with their shadows reacting to the lighting. If you’ve never used augmented reality, you’ll be amazed.
Microsoft wouldn’t tell me if the Development Edition HoloLens headset in the showcase is the final consumer design, but it’s a great start. It’s light (less than a pound) and comfortable. Everything is packed into the “arms” of the glasses. But HoloLens doesn’t fit like glasses. Instead, the halo-like headband supports all the weight with the bridge of the glasses resting ever-s0-slightly on the bridge of your nose. You can easily adjust the fit of the headband with a small ratcheting knob on the back—or by simply pulling the display away from your face. HoloLens is designed to be worn over glasses or with a ponytail, too.
There is some work to do, thought. The version appearing in the showcase requires having someone measure the distance between your pupils and adjust the HoloLens accordingly so it can accurately project what you’re seeing. Microsoft says this process will be automated within the headset by the time it reaches consumers.
Unlike smartphone-based VR headsets and computer-tethered rigs designed primarily for gaming, the HoloLens headset is a standalone Windows 10 computer. It is wireless and self-contained. You interact with it in three ways: By using your gaze as a mouse-pointer for digital objects, by making speech commands, and by pointing your index finger.
Once everything is strapped on and booted up, you get a surprise: HoloLens doesn’t provide a wide-screen field of view. Its holographic display is confined to a box directly in front of your face. You can move a few steps back to enlarge the computer-generated portions of your scene, but the Holograms aren’t available in your peripheral vision.
I noticed the limitations of that during a demo for Project X-Ray, a game in which flying robots bust out of the (real) walls around you and fire lasers at your face. I had to keep my head on a swivel to spot each wave of enemies as they emerged from the walls because the field of view is so narrow. Still, that didn’t detract from the groundbreaking immersion of the game, which was a lot of fun. Watching laser beams streak past you is a legitimate Holy shit moment. HoloLens has amazing potential as a gaming platform, but it’s one area where a wider field of view feels absolutely necessary.
The device also showed remarkable potential as a presentation tool. Imagine having a virtual teleprompter right in front of you, no matter where you look, or being pinpoint exactly what your audience is looking at during a presentation. The future of PowerPoint slide decks looks surprisingly bright.
Microsoft also sees HoloLens making the process of designing and printing 3-D objects a snap, which could help push that technology further into the mainstream. In the “HoloStudio” demo, you can place virtual objects in a real-world environment to visualize your remodeling or redecorating before doing any heavy lifting. But the coolest feature was the ability to shrink a virtual object, play with it, copy and clone portions of it as you would a Photoshop image, and then make it spring back to its original size simply by saying “actual size.” Imagine reducing the floorplan of a room, rearranging everything at small scale, then instantly blowing it it back up to normal size, projected as a “hologram” right there in the room.
Everything in the demo may come to market, but it’s all generally proof-of-concept and meant to stoke developer interest. The showcase is aimed at developers, who can register to attend at HoloLensEvents.com. It’s free, and the three-part demo takes about an hour, but Microsoft says the waiting list for the showcase is already a couple hundred developers deep.
By strapping HoloLens onto people who are interested in making AR applications, Microsoft hopes to inspire new ideas for augmented-reality apps. And in no small part, Microsoft also hopes it inspires developers to fork over the $3,000 for the HoloLens Development Edition headset, which starts shipping early next year.