While VR submerges you in other worlds, HoloLens just lets you peek

I was lucky enough to find myself first in line to try Microsoft’s HoloLens at this year’s BUILD session. As the doors opened, I found myself greeted not by a small, dimly lit room, but a large hall with chairs to seat me and the fifty-odd people behind me all at once, together. Music blared, party lights blazed, and the HoloLens developers took to their feet, stomping and clapping to a ground-shaking techno beat.

HoloLens could really use something to hold on to.

This is not normal. Past demos of augmented or virtual reality – including those from Microsoft – have happened under strict, self-important secrecy, as if the experience was a grand privilege that might be revoked at the slightest provocation. BUILD 2016 flipped that script, putting everyone in a wide open room full of pleasant “mentors” from the HoloLens team, who seemed ecstatic to have people see what they’ve been working on.

If only excitement was enough. The HoloLens is cool, but with the Rift out and the Vive around the corner, AR and VR headsets are now real products anyone can buy. And Microsoft still has some work to do if HoloLens hopes to compete.

Altered reality, through a portal

This demo marks the fourth time the Digital Trends team has tried HoloLens, and the second time I have myself. Each time we’ve said the headset’s limited field of view is a problem. But this time, in particular, it felt crippling.

In videos, the holographic experience looks all-encompassing. When you put on the headset, though, you can only see through a postcard-like window. Its size is hard to describe, but I’d guess it about the size of my hand when held, flat-palmed, a foot away from my face. Your mileage may vary.

During my previous HoloLens demo, which took place in a small room where I couldn’t move far, this limitation was annoying, but acceptable. In a large room full of people moving about, it was much worse. Microsoft’s demo focused on interaction with others, but the HoloLens’ field of view is so small that it’s difficult to see holograms near a person while standing at the distance you’d normally converse. Yes – the field of view is that small.

Later, I shot bullets that bounced dynamically of the surface of real-world objects that were mapped by the HoloLens’ sensors. It was fun, but I found it almost impossible to track them for long within the headset’s small window. I eventually decided to just shoot at a nearby wall, where the projectiles would simply bounce back. Exciting? Not really. But at least I didn’t have to jerk my head around like an owl.

Developer edition exists for a reason

The release of the Developer Edition has of course left geeks like me in eager anticipation of the full version. When will it arrive? This summer? By Christmas? Midway next year?

From what I saw, I’d put my money on the latter.

In some ways, the hardware seems ready for stores. It looked slick, felt fairly comfortable, was simple to adjust, wireless, and capable of networking with other HoloLens headsets. The interface was improved over previous demos with a new home screen and a self-guided setup process that negated the need for the inter-pupillary distance measurement required before.

But it didn’t always work right. People in my group had syncing problems between our headsets, at first, and one person in my group didn’t sync up with the rest, prompting some emergency assistance from our appointed mentor.

The room-mapping featured also proved scatterbrained. In theory, the headset can precisely map a user’s surroundings to make real-time interaction with holograms and the environment possible. In practice, the room maps appeared low-resolution and were often inaccurate. This lead to holograms floating where they should not have, or sinking into furniture. Such bugs didn’t occur all the time, but they were frequent enough to be distracting.

Holograms also have a tendency to overlay objects in the foreground, including the user’s own hands. This led to some bewildering depth perception issues, which wasn’t helped by the fact holograms can appear quite real. Like the mapping issues, it’s not a constant problem, but it’s impossible to miss when it happens.

HoloLens needs a controller

At one point near the end of my demo I found myself looking down a holographic cavern in the floor, shooting at cute robots by flicking my fingers at them. That’s the moment I realized  theHoloLens could really use something to hold on to.

HoloLens Opinion
Matt Smith/Digital Trends
Matt Smith/Digital Trends

The lack of controller means there’s no tactile relationship between your hands and the holograms. Currently, they don’t react to being directly touched or poked. They only understand specific gestures like the “air tap,” which involves holding your index finger straight up, then quickly closing it into your fist.

A disconnect results. You can see the holograms, and even hear the holograms (the built-in audio is pretty decent), but interaction is limited to a few understood gestures, and you don’t receive a tactile response. The holograms reveal themselves to be imaginary, and suspension of disbelief is broken.

It’s not all bad

I know this is harsh. The HoloLens has received much praise so far, and it’s exciting technology. I actually feel bad pointing out its flaws. The developers behind it are the most enthusiastic I’ve ever met.

I’ve never met developers more excited than those working on HoloLens.

But I can’t pretend that what I saw felt anywhere near finished. The HoloLens may still become a world-changing technology, but that change is not going to happen this summer, or even, most likely, later this year. Having recently used the Vive, I can attest that the gap between it and the HoloLens is enormous. The Vive is a cinch to set up, feels more natural in use, and has a handful of immediately available, complete, enjoyable experiences.

I’m not saying the HoloLens is doomed. But it’s telling that Microsoft is so restrictive with its dev kit, and limiting real-world to large companies and organizations before a consumer release date is even teased. Microsoft has shown playful demos featuring Minecraft and other games, but the HoloLens is currently more tool than toy, and I don’t think that focus will soon shift.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Product Review

Razer just made our favorite gaming laptop even more powerful than before

The Razer Blade, our favorite gaming laptop, is now more powerful than ever before. That’s thanks to the new Nvidia RTX graphics cards inside. Do they help Razer retain its edge over the competition?
Gaming

This list of PlayStation 4 exclusives puts its competitors to shame

The PlayStation 4's game library and incredible selection of exclusive games could make anyone with an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch think twice. Here's our list of the latest and greatest PS4 exclusives.
Gaming

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.
Gaming

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Computing

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.
Deals

Samsung drops a solid $100 discount on the Chromebook Pro

If you're in the market for a new laptop, but can't afford to drop $1,000 on one of the best models out there, Chromebooks are an excellent option. Right now, Samsung is offering $100 off the Samsung Chromebook Pro.
Computing

Lost your router? Here's how to find its IP address to help track it down

Changing the login information for your router isn't always easy, that's why so many have that little card on the back. But in order to use it, you need to know where to go. Here's how to find the IP address of your router.
Computing

Between Intel and AMD, these are the best gaming CPUs at every price

What are the best processors for gaming you can buy? You don't need to spend a fortune to get an amazing gaming CPU and now that AMD is competitive again, there are more choices than ever.
Computing

Our favorite Chrome themes add some much-needed pizzazz to your boring browser

Sometimes you just want Chrome to show a little personality and ditch the grayscale for something a little more lively. Lucky for you, we've sorted through the Chrome Web Store to find best Chrome themes available.
Computing

Here's our guide to how to charge your laptop using a USB-C cable

Charging via USB-C is a great way to power up your laptop. It only takes one cable and you can use the same one for data as well as power -- perfect for new devices with limited port options.
Computing

Get the best of both worlds by sharing your data on MacOS and Windows

Compatibility issues between Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS may have diminished sharply over the years, but that doesn't mean they've completely disappeared. Here's how to make an external drive work between both operating systems.
Computing

Is Ice Lake coming soon? Here's what we know about Intel's future chip design

Intel's Ice Lake may end up launching before the architecture it was supposed to replace. With hints of more announcements about the chip design in the very near future, here's everything you need to know about Ice Lake.
Computing

Apple is reportedly set to showcase a new Mac Pro at WWDC 2019 in June

Our Mac Pro 2019 rumor roundup covers all the news, leaks, and rumors about Apple's new machine, set to be announced sometime in 2019. Here's what Apple has said, what the experts think, and what we're likely to see with the new Mac Pro.
Computing

Potentially malicious WinRAR vulnerability patched after almost 20 years

WinRAR, a piece of Windows software for managing archival formats, has been harboring a vulnerability for nearly two decades, potentially allowing malicious software to insert items into a computer's startup folder without user permission.