On Monday, I started to think I might be wrong about HoloLens. It was in the midst of Microsoft's E3 press conference - we were treated to an extensive live demo of the device which even a jaded cynic like myself admitted was pretty impressive. There we were, watching a man literally stare at a blank table. Except, of course, HoloLens revealed an entire holographic Minecraft world sitting in front of him. You could see it too, if only you were wearing HoloLens!
It looked fantastic. Much better than CastAR and some of the other similar devices I've used.
Looks can be deceiving, though.
I don't mean to imply Microsoft's E3 demo was intentionally misleading. I mean, maybe it was, but that's not really a major concern of mine. I'm not here to blow a whistle or anything.
But on Wednesday I finally got to try out HoloLens myself, courtesy of a Microsoft demo it's calling the "Halo 5: Guardians Experience." Suffice it to say my HoloLens experience was quite a bit different from what we saw onstage.
First of all, let me say that the set Microsoft built for this demo was pretty spectacular all on its own. The whole demo took place in a series of rooms designed to look like part of a UNSC ship, and for good reason: The demo is set up as a "briefing," with a virtual commander laying out intelligence on an upcoming battle (which was, in fact, a standard Halo multiplayer match after the HoloLens portion wrapped up).
Basically we went into the first room, told the technician our IPD (interpupillary distance), put on the headset, and then...reality became augmented.
There were a few pieces to the demo. First was a navigation aspect, with the headset putting an "Objective Marker" into the world for you to walk towards. Second was a brief taste of the technology itself, which had us staring through a window and into a miniature UNSC hangar bay--when, in reality, we were staring at a blank wall. I swear, augmented reality will make lunatics of us all.
The lengthiest part of the demo was the briefing itself. Here, we gathered around a blank table - sensing a pattern here? - and basically received our orders. The table came alive with various "holograms," showing us the map's terrain, enemy emplacements, et cetera.
And I will say this: It was really cool. The objects had a certain Tron vibe to them, a made-from-light quality, but still seemed real enough to reach out and touch. I can certainly envision augmented reality taking off in a big way once the tech is good enough.
Trouble in AR paradise
But the tech is not good enough. Therein lies the crux of the problem. HoloLens - like Google Glass, like the Virtual Boy, like the donut burger - is an early iteration of a technology that isn't quite ready. The result is a device that's a little bit impressive and a lot janky.
My chief complaint? The field of view is terrible. Your eyes have a natural field of view of about 180 degrees. Starbreeze's new StarVR headset boasts 210 degrees. Oculus and Valve's virtual reality headsets compromised on 110 degrees.
I don't know what the field of view is on HoloLens, but if the Oculus Rift/HTC Vive have a "looking at the world through ski goggles" feel on occasion, then HoloLens is like looking at a cell phone screen someone held up five feet in front of your face. Or like peering at the world through the slit of a welding mask.
The field of view is so small - both vertically and horizontally - that Microsoft's own demo didn't fit the constraints. I constantly had to tilt my head up and down, left and right to try and take in the full scope of the "holograms" in the Halo 5 experience. And these weren't massive, life-size objects. They were eight-inch-tall scale models (if I had to estimate based on the size of the table and the perceived "distance" from my eyes).
It's doubly distracting because due to the way HoloLens is designed, you can see the rest of your surroundings around the outside of the holographic image. If whatever you're looking at stretches past the edge of HoloLens's tiny projection, it just cuts off--a very screen-like feeling.
The end result? One demo and you understand why Microsoft has attached neither price nor release date to this "miraculous" tech. Believe me, if this thing actually behaved the way it looked during that E3 press conference, Microsoft would sell it. Even if it performed a reasonable approximation, Microsoft would probably sell it - look at the original Kinect stage demos versus the reality of Kinect V1.
HoloLens is not ready for public consumption though, and Microsoft (I assume) knows it. Technological wizardry is one thing. Selling someone a product is another. Right now, HoloLens is a sideshow accoutrement--a cool gimmick before you go play "the real game" i.e. a regular Halo multiplayer match, on a regular ol' flatscreen TV. Virtual reality isn't perfect--there are kinks to work out, and skepticism to overcome. But at least the basic tech specs were nailed and I can present you with a dozen different reasons you might want to own a virtual reality headset.
Augmented reality, though? If HoloLens is the best we've got, then we still have a long way to go.