“Oh man, here we go,” I muttered as the ubiquitous Windows menu flickered to life in a small square in front of my eyes. I was less than a minute into my first Hololens experience and already I was remembering why I’d abandoned the Windows desktop interface a long time ago.
The Hololens is Microsoft’s blueprint for a mixed reality future; an interesting counterpoint to the proliferation of virtual reality headsets that are available to the mass consumer market. Rather than blocking out all outside sensory input, the Hololens uses an augmented reality screen that projects images onto the surfaces of the space around you, allowing the room itself to become part of the experience and making it far less likely that you’ll stumble into anything while using the headset.
Despite an inauspicious start with the natty PC desktop-style interface, the Hololens quickly proved to be an interesting experience for a first time user. Despite my doubts, the menu system proved simple enough to use, while the tutorial quickly got me up to scratch with the relatively limited number of gestures currently recognised by the headset. It was reasonably comfortable to wear for extended periods, too, although it did require significant adjustment so that it stayed on the crown of my head without hitting up against the rim of my glasses or putting pressure on the front of my nose.
I quickly cycled through a number of apps to get: building up a 3D image of a spaceship approaching a planet by placing objects around the room, cycling through the various organs of the human body, placing furniture around the room I was in and unsuccessfully trying to play a game of Jenga (sorry, Holo Tower) with myself. While the controls were reasonably easy to pick up (essentially an adapted version of point and click), a couple of times I found myself thwarted by the fact that my gestures weren’t recognised outside of a reasonably limited frame in front of my eyes.
Immersive but not all-encompassing
With only a limited field of view, sound is crucial to let you know what is around you and where you should be looking. Luckily, the built-in speakers are excellent at distributing sound spatially, as well as being surprisingly targeted – a couple of times I took the headset off, worried that the sound would be loud enough to disturb my colleagues, only to realise I couldn’t hear it from more than 25cm away. This surround-sound effect meant that in an alien shoot ‘em up I was able to wheel around to face a new threat, although at times the limited view meant I didn’t see it until it was almost too late.
A number of games required the room to be mapped before beginning. Initially, this was a novel experience, with the room lighting up with a wall of blue triangles as the space around me was recognised. After shifting to another room and having to repeat the process I found it a little less enthralling, although – thankfully – the Hololens does let you save rooms for repeated use.
However, once in the game it was surprisingly immersive; while it didn’t create a whole new vista around me, the overlaid graphics in the game Fragments were enough to take my focus away from the meeting room I was in and into the rat-infested crime scene I was investigating. Although the dialogue was clunky and the gaming mechanisms repetitive, I could forgive the game all of this for the sheer thrill of being able to walk around a room and carefully examine certain items for clues, just as you would in [real life/the movies] (delete as appropriate).
This strikes me as the obvious strength for devices like the Hololens: most experiences felt slower paced than their virtual reality equivalents, which means it lends itself to strategy, detective or sandbox experiences rather than the action, adventure and sports games that work so well on platforms like the HTC Vive or the PSVR. As its gesture control options become more sophisticated, the Hololens could become increasingly useful for professional activities such as examining building plans, designing products or using it as a accessory to improve learning experiences.
Advanced functions, basic design
Nothing sums up Microsoft’s definitive lack of cool than the way it has designed the Hololens unit. Granted, it is only a prototype so you shouldn’t read too much into aesthetics (think of the hideous DK1 compared to the much more neatly packaged consumer version of the Oculus Rift for an example of this). That said, it does currently look like someone stuck a pair of office glasses to a couple of plastic haloes, before making a token concession to style by putting a ski goggle lens over the front. It’s not terrible by any means, but it does look like the sort of thing a modern day Bond villain might wear in their evil lair while watching their heinous plans being acted out from afar.
Sticking with its gradual shift towards a software-first approach of the last couple of years, Microsoft has made it clear that it expects other hardware manufacturers to step in and create their own headsets built on the Windows Holographic platform. This should mean that consumer versions will be somewhat more attractive when they emerge, as well as (hopefully) increasing the user’s field of view so that it encompasses more of the space around them.
What gives Hololens a distinct advantage over the current generation of VR headsets is its ability to function as a stand-alone unit without the need for trailing wires and bulky gaming PCs. By keeping everything in a lightweight, self-contained unit, Microsoft have created a device that’s not only easy to store but can be used for long periods of time without needing to be charged – no mean feat.
The device is still in development and a consumer version will, in all likelihood, fix the lion’s share of the problems identified above. Yet, even despite the issues, I found myself wanting to spend more time with the headset. Using it carries none of the fatigue and motion sickness that is attributed to many virtual reality headsets and not having to worry about trailing cables and whether I was pressing the right button on the controller was a liberating experience.
Unfortunately, Hololens headsets are only available to developers and enterprises at the moment, with no news on when a consumer release might happen. It looks like we’ll still be waiting a while before we can all get our hands on one for turning our homes into a design studio or a wild west shoot-out.