After telling people that I’ve just tried the Microsoft HoloLens at the company’s annual Build developer conference, I typically got the question on whether it’s better than the Oculus Rift and/or the HTC Vive. I don’t really have an answer for that, because that’s like asking whether apples are better than oranges.
You see, the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR, the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive, and Sony’s Morpheus, these are virtual reality (VR) headsets, designed to transport you into a virtual world. But the HoloLens isn’t a full VR headset; rather, it’s a mixed reality (MR) headset that aims to blend augmented reality and augmented virtuality. In short, a mashing of virtual objects (holograms, in this case) with the physical world. The reality component is always present.
Also, when using most VR headsets, you either sit or stand (the Vive being the most notable exception); and there are controllers. But with the HoloLens, you’re supposed to move around (because you’re still pretty much in the real world), and you control it through a combination of gaze, gesture, and voice. Which explains all the demos we’ve seen so far from Microsoft, like a video player hologram that you can pin to a real wall, a calendar hologram that you can place on a real table, a robot avatar hologram on a real but faceless robot, and so on. These holograms, by the way, are basically universal Windows apps; and the HoloLens a small Windows 10 computer.
Speaking of the MR headset itself, the one that I’ve tried at Build seems more polished than the first one shown in January. It’s untethered, so movements aren’t restricted by cumbersome wires. The band is also home to some serious circuitry, such as speakers, a CPU, a GPU, and a Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) capable of processing terabytes of data (including mapping data) from its sensors.
If you think of VR headsets as helmets for giants, then you’ll find HoloLens goggles for normal humans. A headband with a visor is probably the best way to describe it. Wearing it is like putting on a baseball cap: you hold the arms on both sides and drop the headset over your head. You can move the visor up and down, as well as front and back (which means it works even if you’re wearing glasses). These aren’t done just to get a comfortable fit; it’s crucial to do it right so that you can see this little window fully in the visor, because it’s on this window that you see the holograms. There’s another band positioned at a 20-degree angle to the main band, and on it is a knob for tightening the grip. Overall, the unit fitted well on my head, but a fellow journalist had a tough time getting a good fit. To ensure a good experience, the Microsoft staff also measured my eyes' inter-pupillary distance. Microsoft doesn’t say how heavy the HoloLens weighs, other than it’s “significantly less than the average laptop”.
In my case, I did a Keystone demo to experience how HoloLens would change the AEC-O (architecture, engineering, construction, and owner) industry, not unlike the Trimble demo we’ve seen at the keynote. In a nutshell, I was an architect for 10 minutes. I got to adjust a building’s height in a SketchUp modeling software running on the PC using a mouse, and saw the change reflected immediately in holographic 3D on a physical city block model that was on a table next to me. I could also drag the cursor off the screen, place it on the hologram, and manipulate it directly. Heck, I could even go into a first-person, ground-level view to see if my building blended in well with the surroundings.
Next, I was brought to a structure that looked like two brick walls. Here, I found a note left behind by a contractor, who told me a problem that he had (something about moving a door). To be clear, the note was a holograhic note and it was pinned to the wall. And using the air-tap gesture (a click action using my index finger done at chest level), I was able to hear and see the problem, and visualize possible remedies. Since HoloLens was able to map the floor’s blueprint to the physical structure, I could see through walls to determine which solution would work and which wouldn’t. Finally, I left a voice message for the contractor (his name was Richard, by the way) on what to do next (basically, a pipe had to go), a holographic message that he would pick up the next time he comes by.
(Editor's note: Sorry for the lack of hands-on images. Microsoft is still very secretive about HoloLens, and we had to keep our camera and smartphone in a locker before the hands-on session.)
All in all, the HoloLens is pretty amazing. I can see why Microsoft thinks this and Windows Holographic would be huge, because it could impact so many industries. To developers, this is yet another exciting platform to develop for, and it requires as much creativity skills as coding skills.
But the HoloLens isn’t perfect. Its biggest drawback (also universally agreed by others I’ve spoken to) is the limited field of view. In certain cases, it can be downright annoying. Take for example my interaction with Richard. As virtual Richard spoke, I could only see his head and part of his torso. To see his whole body, I had to move my head up and down. Horizontal field of view isn’t very high too, meaning that even if my eyeballs could turn to see something at the sides, I still had to the move my head to see the holograms there because the window didn’t extend as wide.
Still, the HoloLens is impressive tech, and I'm looking forward to its retail release, hopefully within this year. It definitely has far more use cases other than video gaming, and it’s nothing like the Oculus Rift.