Firstly, if you don’t know what Hololens is – take a minute and watch this. Today I wanted to answer some questions on what it is like to use first hand. There is a lot of good, and there’s some downside. In a later article I might also offer some of my thoughts around its place in the product/brand landscape and some future applications.
Just to be clear, this technology is just starting to ship to developers in the US. There are just a couple of Hololens units in Australia (kept under guard at Microsoft AU). A couple of weeks ago Microsoft allowed some of us to get hands on at a special evening at UTS. We were allowed to take photos but no video. I had some burning questions coming into this so hopefully I can now share some interesting things I learned. Firstly the quick take outs:
Q: Is it any good?
Short answer yes, it is super impressive technology although with a couple of caveats which I will explain later.
Q: Isn’t it just Augmented reality / VR/ Google Glass?
No. Make no mistake – this is a very different experience to anything else. Think “reality augmented” rather than the other way round. Think Star Trek holodeck, although a very early and limited version of what is still to come.
Q: What’s the killer feature?
When I observed other people using it for the first time, without exception they all stood still (like you do with VR) and only moved their head for the first few minutes. This does Hololens a huge disservice! In fact it’s only when you walk around freely that you truly understand what this device is about. The freedom to move within a space and walk in and out and around objects is what separates it from all other experiences. If you get the pleasure of using one make sure the first thing you do is move about with your feet not your head.
Q: Do the ‘holograms’ look real?
Yes and no. It’s not uncanny valley territory (yet) but make no mistake, objects (holograms) that you see are totally stable, truly 3 dimensional, and feel like they are there locked in the environment 100%. The framerate is super impressive so moving your head quickly around an object – I tried but I could not break it or get objects to jump around or jitter like happens in most other AR apps. I even turned my head upside down. There are no obvious ‘pixels’ (which you can still see when you use Oculus etc). Objects appeared to be about 90%-95% solid (much better than I had expected) in fairly standard room lighting. We were informed that ambient light makes a huge difference to the opacity which makes perfect sense. Our host told us that in broad daylight, transparency could drop down to around 50-60%.
Q: What’s wrong with it?
Hololens for me stopped just a yard short of being mind blowing. Why? Simply that the FOV (Field of View) is limited. Everything you see is rendered into a rectangle that is akin to having a 32 inch monitor about 3 feet away. So it’s like looking through a window into a world of holograms rather than being right in it. To explain what this means in context, the demo I experienced (with a lifesize skeleton and various muscle layers) cut off badly when I was stood about 4 feet away I could only see the head and torso, cut off at the chest, yet a real person standing next to it was wholly visible to me. I had to stand 12 feet back and tilt my head on the side to see the whole body.
Above: What it’s actually like when using it. (You won’t see anything above, below or in you periphery vision). Nothing to scale this is just my approximation.
Above: What Microsoft shows in it’s hype video is not quite what you get. (But it’s not a deal breaker, this tech is still amazing)
Many of the videos you see on YouTube (including the one above) are not representative of what you actually experience – these are certainly more hype than the reality. As my very crudely illustrated diagram above shows, the experience I had is that you have to scan the room with your head to see everything around. (You can’t look around using your eyeballs). Looking at someone using hololens it’s very apparent that there’s something not quite right as their head scans madly looking for the part of the hologram they want to see. It’s not a complete deal breaker but if you expected to be dropped into a virtual world you are likely to be disappointed. The FOV is in fact much smaller than Oculus or Hive. I imagine that this will be the main objective/issue to remedy in future models.
Q: Software… any good?
Software – it’s limited at present as you would expect but there’s enough to see the potential. I played with a couple of demos (human body and a solar system). They were somewhat gimmicky and lacked depth/imagination but did the job of showing that Hololens has a lot of potential. Our Microsoft host told me that his favourite demo was a detective crime game but we didn’t have time to get to that one unfortunately.
Interfacing with the environment is a bit clunky. The main interface method is a virtual click – you tap your fingers together (like a sock puppet) after aiming the equivalent of a crosshair at either a GUI element or object. To be honest I would have prefered to have the optional game controller in hand as this was quite painful at times. There are also no buttons on the headset – a headset trackpad might also have been useful.
Q: How was the headset to wear?
Comfortable and surprisingly lightweight. No wires. You put it on like you would a baseball cap. People with glasses had no problem. Ideally it needs calibrating for individuals – our Hololens was set to an average which worked fine for me, but we were told that some people would have issues requiring calibration and indeed one person in our group could not see what we were seeing. In terms of aesthetic I’m not really a fan of how it looks and Microsoft is no Apple when it comes to product design. But this is about the tech not fashion. Nobody will be wearing these in the street, and not for some time to come.
Q: Battery life?
I was told 3-4 hours will be an average but our MS host had apparently managed a solid 5 hour stint.
Q: Was anything better than expected?
1. Sound – wow, there is some serious thought gone into this. Whilst a pair of normal headphones gives you left and right, Hololens has the ability to allow sound to move directionally so you can hear if something is moving above, below or around you.
2. I will again stress – the believability that these virtual objects are connected and part of the room you are in is something special. It’s only flaw is the field of view.
Q: Who is it for?
There’s a bit of a confusion here. Microsoft’s hype videos (like the one showing the man in his kitchen, and the minecraft demo) suggest consumer use but that is not where this is going for now. Initial applications and sales will be targeted firmly at B2B. Think architecture, product development, training, simulation etc. At $3000 per unit, it’s not ready for the average home yet. That will certainly come but I think we are probably 4-5 years from that depending on how this 1.0 version pans out.
Q: Any other interesting points?
Development: Unity seemed to be the main way in for most.
Getting hold of one: This could be an issue. We were told that if you ordered one today you might get it in a year (earliest).
Conclusion. It’s cool, it’s clever, it works, it’s a bit dorky looking (imho), it’s absolutely worthy of a place in any digital strategy for the future. For some industries like interior design and architecture this is their light bulb moment. Is it another Kinect (all the hype but less real world take up)? Personally I think this is a solid sign of things to come. It’s not quite there yet and it is not consumer ready, but it will come.
Product Design 6.5/10
Field of View 4/10
Software Demos 5/10
Future Potential 9.5/10