Two years ago at its Build developer conference, Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, a futuristic holographic headset it said would usher in future of computing: A “mixed reality” where the virtual blurs into the real world.
HoloLens looked extremely promising, except for one thing: Its narrow field of view meant using it wasn’t anything close to the expansive and immersive experiences portrayed by its on-stage demos.
Fast forward to Build 2018, and the same problem continues to hold back the headset as well as Microsoft’s entire mixed-reality platform.
Build is a get-together for developers to learn about all the new Microsoft tools and technologies that’ll supposedly shape the future. It’s not a very consumer-facing conference.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for end users. After all, the things developers make directly affect users, whether they’re working on a factory line, in an office, in a classroom, or wherever.
HoloLens, however, is not a future we should get too excited about until Microsoft upgrades the headset hardware.
Wrong initial messaging
In its current model, HoloLens is a commercial product for businesses and the enterprise, not for consumers, Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s Director of Communications, clarified during an interview.
“A lot of the initial [HoloLens] experiences related to gaming; we showed Roboraid and Minecraft,” said Sullivan. “Because of the expertise of creating three-dimensional content is derived primarily from the gaming industry, those early demos were a lot of games.”
“We knew that a device with the price point of HoloLens was not necessarily a consumer gaming device, but we knew that it would be a very powerful tool for commercial customers to do things they’ve literally never been able to do before. I think the initial demos of a lot of games may have sent the wrong signal that this was a consumer device.”
It’s been about a year since I last tried any HoloLens experience, but at this year’s Build Microsoft reinvigorated enthusiasm for it with two new applications. One is Microsoft Remote Assist, an app that lets HoloLens users collaborate in real-time from remote locations via photos, videos, annotations, and more. The other app is Microsoft Layout, which lets HoloLens users edit and create room layouts right in their real physical spaces.
I didn’t get a chance to try out either of these apps at Build (they’re coming on May 22), but there were several other new HoloLens experiences that gave me a good picture of the state of the headset and mixed reality.
DataMesh had a demo of Charlie, its holographic AI financial adviser. The rather primitive cyborg-like adviser helped calculate the amount of investment I’d need to pay off an Ivy League college tuition for my kid. I told Charlie how much money I had and it crunched all the numbers, summarizing what my monthly payments would need to be, how much interest I’d need to fork over, and how long it’d take to pay it all off.
As I walked around the small booth and turned my head left and right, up and down, I couldn’t help but notice how un-immersive the augmented reality graphs were. They weren’t easily visible and kept getting cut off as I moved my head because of the HoloLen’s small field of view.
Don’t get me wrong — I suck at calculations, so it sure was convenient to have an AI do all the math for me — but how the heck is this any more practical than just seeing the same data generated on a screen? The augmented reality added virtually nothing to the experience, other than maybe feeling like I was talking to a financial advisor instead of a bot (even though it ironically looked like bot).
HoloLens’ weakness was even more apparent in another app by Taqtile. In this MR experience, I was tasked with constructing a circuit board with the aid of its augmented reality instructions.
Through HoloLens, I could pull up instruction sets arranged as windows, view photo diagrams, take notes, and watch a video tutorial that’d show me where to connect a component on the board. There were even overlays directly on top of the circuit board showing me what each piece was.
It’s pretty neat, but my suspension of disbelief was ruined whenever I had to dramatically turn my head over to the right of to see the video tutorial. I still very much realized I was simply looking through a window in front of me and merely peering inside of it.
Same thing for CAE, a healthcare simulation training experience, that lets nurses and doctors explore the human anatomy in 3D.
It’s mind-blowing seeing the different parts of the body split into layers above a rubber torso on top of a table, and it’s even more impressive that to use hand gestures to enlarge and spin certain organs around — even though there’s still some issues when it comes to response time. But it all really fell apart when my view of the human anatomy was obscured by the headset’s limitations.
Clarity is a key part of tricking your mind into believing the virtual objects in front of you are really there even when they’re not.
I recently tested the HTC Vive Pro and the Oculus Go, two VR headsets with sharper images than the headsets that came before them, and it was so easy to forget I had escaped into a virtual world for extended periods of time because everything looked more realistic. VR worlds haven’t quite reached the uncanny valley, but they’re inching eerily closer to it.
HoloLens — the current version at least — isn’t remotely close and that’s a problem because it makes it more difficult to even get excited about it. Unless you need your hands for something else, you might as well just stick with phone-based AR. You’re still looking through a window anyway.
Intentional design limitation
Microsoft has patents that suggest it’s figured out how to double HoloLens’ field of view, but it’s unclear if that’ll happen anytime soon. Two years after HoloLens’ introduction and the FOV is still a limitation that gimps the headset from making more progress.
It’s a limitation in my eyes, but Sullivan reasoned it’s by design.
“[HoloLens] is a device that brings three-dimensional digital holograms into your world and is untethered,” Sullivan told me. “Those characteristics enable it to be applicable in unique scenarios where you would not use a headset that’s tethered to a powerful PC to gain a larger field of view. In some respects, it’s by design to enable those scenarios where you need a degree of environmental awareness for a variety of reasons. You need to see enough of the real world to do the job that you’re doing.”
Sullivan says Microsoft could have given HoloLens a larger FOV, but the tradeoffs wouldn’t have been worth it.
“If you look at the computer science and engineering challenge proposed by creating a device that projects holograms into your real world, but is not plugged into a powerful PC, and doesn’t get hot, and has a battery that lasts… you could make the FOV bigger — just make the components bigger and heavier, generating more heat and have less battery life. That was not the tradeoff we wanted — we wanted to create a device that solved this unique set of problems.”
I understand where Sullivan’s coming from — an intentionally small field of view reminds you you’re still in the real world — but at the same time, Microsoft should release more videos that more accurately reflect what it’s really like looking through HoloLens instead of the misleading ones showing how immersive holograms are.
Needs faster iteration for growth
New hardware succeeds when there’s a healthy library of apps for available. In the case of HoloLens, there aren’t many to mess with — only a few hundred, most of which appear to be demos and not full-featured experiences.
HoloLens reminds me of the original iPhone: forward-facing, but technologically behind in some core areas. The difference is Apple quickly iterated the iPhone to outclass any challengers and Microsoft’s kinda resting on its laurels with HoloLens.
A better comparison for HoloLens might be the now-dead Kinect. The motion-tracking camera captivated the world, quickly becoming the fastest-selling consumer device in 2011, but Microsoft waited another two years to bring a more powerful version to market. By then, the world had moved on and developers had stopped making software for it.
I fear HoloLens will face the same fate if Microsoft doesn’t give it the update it so desperately needs.
UPDATE: May 8, 2018, 6:41 p.m. PDT Added comments from Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s Director of Communications.