HoloLens uncensored: A candid hands-on with HoloLens Development Edition

It felt like an undercover operation: On Tuesday night, while Microsoft executives were rehearsing their keynote presentations for Microsoft Build, I was in a hotel room next door to the conference venue, testing out what everyone would be coming to see: the HoloLens Development Edition. 

This is actually the third time I’ve gone hands-on with HoloLens hardware, and it's clear Microsoft has used the last 15 months of HoloLens development to craft a remarkably polished experience. 

Microsoft has already detailed some of the amazing games and apps that will ship with the HoloLens Development Edition, but last night I demoed something new: a proof-of-concept HoloLens business app for Citi created by a company called 8ninths (I'll cover this experience in detail in an accompanying article). Microsoft plans to let Build attendees use the HoloLens to virtually walk on Mars and play with Actiongrams, but on Tuesday I had a chance to boot up HoloLens and try it out in much less controlled conditions: in the real-world confines of a hotel room. Sans Microsoft employees.

The best part: I still haven’t felt the faintest hint of nausea while using HoloLens. This alone might convince VR holdouts to try augmented reality instead.

What’s new in the HoloLens There’s one major improvement that many may never notice: Previous versions required you to dial in your inter-pupillary distance to ensure that the HoloLens doesn't make you dizzy. But now that’s apparently handled automatically.

Physically, the HoloLens remains virtually unchanged. It still resembles a hard plastic sun visor with a pair of sunglasses mounted in front. At just over one pound, I still find it surprisingly comfortable to wear. You’ll need to tighten a small dial in back to ensure that its gently padded headband rests on the brim of your head. And don’t let the weight dip down on your nose, as it can squeeze your holographic field of view down to a narrow wedge. But you can also tip the visor hinge down at an angle if you need to.

As before, the HoloLens includes two sets of buttons. The left buttons control the brightness of the holograms, while the right buttons control audio volume. The HoloLens places a pair of small, surround-sound speakers next to your ears. I found the volume loud enough to mostly drown out other sounds, but soft enough so that I could tell other people in the room were talking. That's augmented reality in a nutshell, really. 

Virtual reality (like Oculus Rift) surrounds your head in a bubble of digital data. Augmented reality, meanwhile, superimposes holograms over the real world. Nonetheless, with HoloLens it still helps to keep the shades drawn. Indeed, the HoloLens' holographic images washed out when I viewed them against pale walls.

What's more, when we opened the drapes to get more light in the room, the HoloLens suddenly freaked out, crashing the app we were using. No one in the room was quite sure why that happened, but it suggests that HoloLens is going to be an indoor toy. If nothing else, this version may be unable to accommodate a sharp changes in lighting.

Viewed against a dark background, the HoloLens holograms worked beautifully, though I would have preferred just a bit higher resolution. Colors popped and seemed to be rendered accurately. I did notice a tiny bit of hazing, which helped indicate which portion of my screen could render holograms.

Last May, I criticized Microsoft for shrinking down its HoloLens field of view to about the size of a welding mask—or a smartphone held a few inches away from one's face. But David Dedeine, a key HoloLens developer, has waved away the field of view issue as largely irrelevant, and I’m now inclined to agree with him.

The limited field of view becomes annoying when there’s a large virtual object in front of you, and you can’t see it in its entirety. Ditto when you’ve forgotten where a virtual object “is” simply because you can no longer see it. But, otherwise, the limited field of view didn't emerge as a problem during my Tuesday night demo. It's like how you don't get annoyed when you can't see a picture hanging on the wall behind you. You know it’s still there, and if necessary you can turn your head to find it.

Using the HoloLens is like riding a bike: It's surprisingly familiar, even a year later. A small virtual pixel that’s always in the center of your gaze serves as a “cursor.” Look at an icon, and click with an “air tap”—hand forward, index finger up, then index finger down. (Just make sure that you look at your hands while doing so, to ensure the HoloLens “sees” your fingers making the gesture.) Maybe it’s just my experience using the device, but the HoloLens recorded almost all of my taps correctly.

You can also navigate by voice, and it’s here that the HoloLens’ incredible sensitivity works against it. Because it’s a collaborative device, the HoloLens tends to respond to anyone’s voice. You literally have to watch what you say to avoid launching an app inadvertently.

If you want to return to the Start menu, just mime the “bloom” gesture—palm up, fingers together, then fingers open. And then you're back to Start.

You may have seen pictures of the Start menu. On top, there’s a clock and battery indicator, and an array of tiled applications that you can configure. The tiles don’t appear to be “Live,” though, as they don’t display information or rotate. I tried out Cortana, but the HoloLens struggled with the hotel's Wi-Fi connection. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to explore the Settings menu. 

Otherwise, though, Microsoft has apparently used the headset's 64GB of onboard storage to full effect. HoloTour, which Microsoft has never showed off before, is another app from Asobo, the same developer that wrote Young Conker and Fragments. Think of HoloTour as Google Earth with a twist: While you explore the globe, you do so from a virtual perspective, with VR views of Machu Picchu and other famous sights available at a click.

I doubt that the HoloLens will ship with every cool app I've seen during demos, such as RoboRaid, Young Conker and Fragments. But the good news is that these apps deliver much more than I ever expected.

HoloLens apps and games load quickly enough, but you'll still have to factor in physical setup: Chances are that you’ll be seated in a different position every time you use the headset, so you’ll need to “scan” the room with the HoloLens so that it can recognize which physical objects it can interact with. I can see that getting old, fast.

Every time you “scan” a room into a playspace, you’ll need to walk around, “painting” the walls, furniture, floor, and ceiling with a layer of blue tiles that indicates that the area has been scanned. (Asobo’s Dedeine lays out the process here, together with the maximum dimensions of the playspace.)  The whole process takes about a minute, though it's a long minute if you just want to scan an entire playspace for a game. But virtual objects can also be quickly pinned to physical objects, so don't expect every app to be like this -- just physical-space intensive games and other apps.

The Conker app, however, plays it smart, as you can "save” a playspace to the HoloLens. Otherwise, a chirpy voice advises you to “look behind the furniture!” to scan in everything. I can tell you that the HoloLens holograms reached from the window to the the front wall, which I'd estimate at about 18 feet or so.

Really, it all looks great. I can’t help but wonder if the only thing holding back the HoloLens from a consumer launch is Microsoft’s determination to back the HoloLens with a suite of apps so robust that it will make consumers forget all about Windows phones.

In any event, I can’t tell you—yet — what it’s going to be like to watch a movie on a “100-inch holographic” screen, as Microsoft promises at Build. I can tell you, however, that the first time a squirrel hops out of a zippered “pocket” on your wall, you’re going to absolutely flip out.


Mark Hachman

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