When Microsoft teased the public with the concept of the HoloLens in early 2015, many believed it was just another example of ‘vapourware’ – a fantastic product that’s announced with much fanfare, only to disappear into thin air, never to be seen again.
But flash forward twelve months, and Microsoft’s ‘augmented reality’ system has become a more tangible proposition – at least for those with deep pockets who happen to live in the US or Canada!
On the 29th of February, the company announced the forthcoming release of the HoloLens development kit. This is due to ship on the 30th of March with three games – Fragments, Young Conker and RoboRaid – as well as Microsoft’s own tester programs Holostudio, Skype and HoloTour.
With a price point of $3,000 and limited availability, it’s clear this early version of the HoloLens is aimed at broad range of software developers rather than fans of gaming and other entertainment. Nevertheless, this won’t deter dedicated early adopters of new tech, who are typically prepared to spend a few thousand dollars for the newest kit.
Indeed, with the recent clamour for virtual reality headsets like Samsung’s budget-priced Gear VR and HTC’s pricey Vive, tech-savvy guys and gals are increasingly excited by Microsoft’s ‘augmented reality’ – or ‘AR’ – HoloLens, which offers a different, yet highly attractive, proposition.
WHAT IS THE HOLOLENS?
As mentioned, the obvious point of difference is that the HoloLens utilises augmented reality – not virtual reality.
Sure, AR and VR sound similar – but the difference is, augmented reality allows users to view a live real-world environment with virtual objects overlaid on top. This creates the effect of the object actually ‘existing’ in the outside world, rather than the user being immersed in an entirely virtual landscape.
The futuristic computer interfaces in films like Iron Man and Minority Report showcase the exciting possibilities of augmented reality – something all technophiles ultimately aspire to! The ability to move a ‘holographic’ object in a real-world, 3D space, with a 360-degree field of view, is a sci-fi dream come true – and creates an immersive, hands-on experience.
This real-world interaction with 3D virtual objects is what sets this technology apart from the other VR headsets coming to market. Following an impressive presentation at the TED2016 conference in February, Microsoft gave attendees the opportunity to try the latest version of the kit for themselves.
Microsoft explained that while using the HoloLens, virtual objects can be manipulated using gaze, gesture or voice. However, these actions have produced inconsistent responses for some testers – suggesting the user interface requires further tweaking.
The developer kit comes with a Bluetooth ‘clicker’, which is a welcome addition and should make the gesture controls somewhat more responsive: the model demoed at TED relied on finger-clicking, which doesn’t provide the best user experience!
It should certainly improve the playability of the featured RoboRaid app – a first-person shooter featuring virtual robots crashing through real walls! The spatial sound enhances the illusion of being surrounded by robots, and is another big plus.
As one might expect given the price commanded by the HoloLens, build quality is of a high order – with 2GB RAM, 64GB Flash storage, Bluetooth 4.1 and two-megapixel HD camera. Indeed, the device is essentially a standalone Windows 10 computer, and can function reasonably well without being attached to a PC.
Despite the impressive hardware, however, criticisms have been made regarding the need to manually set your interpupillary distance, as well as its estimated battery usage. Microsoft suggests an optimistic five and a half hours battery life with light use – but many will be lucky to achieve two and a half hours with normal-to-heavy usage of the headset.
In addition, many have been less than impressed by the limited field of vision of the virtual image, which is often apparent and makes the illusion of the projected image seem noticably less ‘real’. Indeed, some testers have likened it to having a 15-inch screen two feet from your face!
On a positive note, Windows 10 apps run natively on the headset – and Microsoft have developed a particularly interesting ‘mixed reality capture’ app called Actiongram. This allows developers to easily create and share videos which blend virtual images with live content – a bit like the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. HoloLens users will also be able to share live images from their surroundings and virtual projections with other users.
Going deeper into the hardware, the HoloLens is set to feature a new version of Intel’s Atom processors with ‘WiDi’ technology – allowing users to stream videos and apps to larger external displays.
In addition, alongside the traditional CPU and GPU found in other computers, the HoloLens also sports a new 32-bit HPU, or ‘holographic processing unit’. This coprocessor handles the integration and interaction of real environments and virtual objects, allowing the HoloLens to interpret its surroundings.
The hardware, then, is coming along nicely – but that doesn’t necessarily mean smooth sailing from here on out.
THE CHALLENGING FUTURE
In the future, issues will no doubt arise with this technology – not least privacy concerns.
Project leader Alex Kipman is familiar with such arguments, having led the development of the controversial Xbox Kinect – described as a “surveillance device” by at least one civil liberties organisation.
Similar concerns surround the HoloLens. The device’s software features room-mapping functionality that could be exploited to allow viewing of a representation of your home or business – including sensitive information and private items.
However, Kipman’s immediate concerns will be centered on the device’s closest competitors, the Meta2 augmented reality glasses and the secretive, Google-backed Magic Leap technology.
As for the release date, suggestions that Microsoft will have a model on general sale by Halloween may ring true – if we mean Halloween 2019. Anything sooner than that should be considered a bonus!
All the same, it’s a fantastic technology with great potential, as long as it finds the right software to drive it forward – and I have to wonder if Lewis Carroll was on to something when he wrote that “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”