Hands on: Microsoft HoloLens

We played architect with Microsoft's staggeringly surreal HoloLens prototype

HoloLens is rapidly evolving from an ambitious experiment into a real device you might own in just a few years.

Fewer than five months ago, we had the rare privilege to be among the first ever to try Microsoft’s HoloLens. Digital Trends’ editor-in-chief Jeremy Kaplan came away from the experience with his jaw on the floor, but there was a big fat caveat; what he used was not the sleek device Microsoft demonstrated. It was wired, it was big, and oddly placed fans blew hot air across his chin. The device seemed nowhere near ready.

It was no surprise to see HoloLens mentioned again at BUILD 2015. But what is surprising is how far Microsoft has come in just a few months, and how important the technology has become to its future. The janky prototype is gone, replaced by a fully functional and surprisingly intuitive headset that looks and works as seen in the company’s elaborate demos.

I must admit I was skeptical of the device back in January, and thought it might be a far-fetched prototype trotted out to grab eyeballs. Now that I’ve used HoloLens myself, my doubts have been quelled.

Right this way

Microsoft let hundreds of people, both press and developers, use HoloLens at BUILD 2015, but that doesn’t mean the company has let its guard down. The carefully orchestrated demo took place in a hotel beside the main convention hall on floors rented out entirely by Microsoft. I, along with a pod of seven other journalists, was never left alone for the duration.

After being escorted to the proper floor in an elevator operated by Microsoft staff, we were asked to leave our bags and all electronics, including cell phones, in a locker. Like Jeremy five months before me, I had to make do with pen and paper. Smiling Microsoft PR flacks let us down a hall, past a few sturdy fellows in black semi-formal attire that looked ready to take down any runners or nab any hidden cameras.

Like the first prototype, the latest model requires an inter-pupil distance measurement before use. I was promised this shouldn’t be necessary with the final incarnation. I was also carefully instructed on how to handle the HoloLens; they’re apparently still a bit fragile, and while over 100 were brought to BUILD 2015, the company had no shortage of interested people to hustle through its tightly controlled experience.

In the flesh

And then it was time. I was lead to private room, where two Microsoft employees were waiting. One asked me to sit down on a bench and, with carefully practiced haste, helped me place the device on my head.

Let me be clear; HoloLens is exactly what you’ve seen in keynotes and previous demos. Its appearance is like a giant plastic hairband crossed with a pair of equally oversized sunglasses, but the sum of those two decidedly dorky parts is cooler than it sounds. That may be because, unlike Google Glass and other augmented reality devices seen before, HoloLens doesn’t try to pass itself off as something it’s not. Microsoft hasn’t shown a demo of it used outside a work or home environment for good reason. It isn’t meant for the street.

Microsoft HoloLens side angle
Matt Smith/Digital Trends
Matt Smith/Digital Trends

It is wireless, though, and fit with surprisingly little adjustment. A knob on the back rotated to loosen or tighten the strap like in a bike helmet, and some jostling was required to place the holographic field of view in line with my eyes. That took no more than fifteen seconds, assisted by a calibration image Microsoft calls the “fitbox.” I fiddled with the knob until HoloLens was firmly in place, and that was it. I was fitted for holograms.

Ten minutes as an architect

Microsoft had at least two different demos at BUILD 2015, but only one was shown to each attendee. For mine, I had the chance to play out a childhood fantasy: I became an architect. With a few clicks, my HoloLens shepherds activated my device, overlaying a 3D architectural model from a computer beside me onto a real, physical model in the room. The effect was indistinguishable from magic. One moment, I saw an empty plaza. The next, a building filled the space.

I’ve never used anything like it before, and neither have you.

Using a program called Sketchup, I manipulated the building like a wizard, stretching it, shrinking it, turning what was a tiny shop corner into a towering skyscraper with a swipe of the mouse. As in earlier demos, the mouse didn’t just live on the monitor of the computer running the demo, but could seamlessly transition into holographic space. And I do mean seamless. One moment the cursor was on the monitor, the next it was a hologram, positioned exactly where the monitor ended.

While impressive, this portion of the demo was simple, at least in terms of graphics. The building was only a collection of white blocks. Perhaps anticipating this disappointment, my assistants asked me to click on a tiny person projected into the physical model’s parking lot – and suddenly I was there, gazing up at my creation from ground level. While the imagined masterpiece was a 3D model with rather basic textures, its surroundings were taken from street-level photographic data, which made the experience utterly convincing.

Microsoft HoloLens front

Matt Smith/Digital Trends

And there was more. Having seen the big picture, it was time to become more intimate with the details architecture. This involved a superpower; X-ray vision. In a room lined with brick walls I was given the power to see through them, identifying load-bearing supports and important plumbing. To my dismay, it turned out a proposed doorway went right through an important support, and the purposed work-around cut through important plumbing. Defeated, I “tapped” the troublesome area with an out-stretched index finger and left an audio note for an imagined foreman.

Incredible, but with limitations

Am I gushing? You would be too. But skeptical readers don’t need to worry; I’m not just going to rubber-stamp HoloLens and call it a day. There are still one or two small problems.

The biggest disappointment is the field of view. What’s not obvious in Microsoft’s demos is that holograms only appear in a box directly before you. Its size is difficult to describe, but it seemed to consume about two-thirds my field of view. The transition between what can and can’t be seen is absolute, with no fading or blending, and jarring as a result. Some of the company’s on-stage demos have left the impression you can see objects in your periphery, but in its current form, that’s not the case.

I also can’t agree with the claim that HoloLens boasts a “comfortable fit.” Oh, sure, it could be worse, but it could be a lot better. The problem seems to be related to how holograms only appear properly when the lenses are placed at a very particular location. Too high or too low, and they disappear or cut off. The glasses never actually rest on the user’s nose as a result, so all that’s keeping it on is the pressure of the headband – and that means it has to be pretty tight.

Of these problems, the first is more worrying than the second. An uncomfortable fit can be worked on, and given how far Microsoft has come since January, the company deserves kudos. HoloLens no longer looks like a mad scientist’s torture device. The field of view could be a big problem, though, especially for home users, and the company’s representatives were unable to clarify how the issue might be improved in the future.

Holograms — to somewhere near you, sometime

My look at the improved prototype made clear that Microsoft is serious about the project, is making great strides, and it won’t be released anytime soon.

The official projection is “Windows 10 timetable,” which means sometime before whatever comes after Windows 10 is released. Microsoft usually needs two to three years between iterations, so don’t expect to see HoloLens on store shelves this holiday season. Maybe next winter, if we’re lucky.

There’s a lot to improve. While holograms are reasonably sharp, I’d guess the resolution around 720p, and image quality is about on par with a cheap LCD monitor. It could also stand to be lighter, more ergonomic, and the field of view needs to be larger.

Even so, Microsoft is obviously proud of what it has built, and has every right to be. I’ve never used anything like it before, and neither have you. Even as a concept, it has no peer. Virtual-reality headsets like Oculus Rift can’t do augmented reality like this, and don’t have equal support for wireless use or navigation. Wearables like Google Glass, on the other hand, are far less powerful, and their capability suffers as a result.

Microsoft says this is just the beginning. There will be more demos, for more people, at more places. I certainly hope that’s true, because while I’ve done my best to describe the experience, words will never be adequate. Photos and video also fail, despite the clever cameras shown at demos. You can’t really understand until it’s you who, with a click of a button, has suddenly teleported to a location halfway across the country. Once you do, you’ll understand why HoloLens could be the future of computers.

Highs

  • Absolutely immersive
  • Surprisingly easy to use
  • Wireless
  • Looks cool, in a geeky way

Lows

  • Tight fit
  • Limited field of view
  • Image quality still needs some work
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