Taking the Microsoft HoloLens for a test drive

Taking the Microsoft HoloLens for a test drive

Shooting space marauders was fun, but a recent demo showed that HoloLens still has a long road ahead before it's ready for retail.

HoloLens doesn't come close to the Starship Enterprise's imaginary holodeck; it's more a toe in the water for virtual-reality computing and gaming. The system consists of a relatively light headset running an onboard Windows 10 computer. It's completely standalone — there's no wired or wireless tether to a PC required.

It's both similar to and very different from Google Glass, now apparently in hibernation. Google's device essentially shrunk a laptop computer into a tiny, heads-up display immediately in front of your right eye. It was designed to go anywhere and was hailed as ground-breaking technology. But its built-in camera and microphone soon raised howls of concern about the privacy of others. It was actually banned in some businesses and countries.

HoloLens isn't simply a standard computer in a new wearable form factor. Its raison d'être is to merge physical and virtual environments, using a device that's both highly portable and relatively affordable for consumers.

HoloLens

Based on a developers' demo day I attended, the HoloLens hardware seems nearly baked. It's now up to software engineers to create the knock-your-socks-off applications.

The three tenets of the HoloLens system

The concept of combining physical and digital environments can be a bit difficult to grasp. Some of the promo photos on the HoloLens site can help. (In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.) To keep it simple, Microsoft breaks down the technology into three parts: gaze, gestures, and voice commands.

With the HoloLens headset in place, you "gaze" through its mostly transparent lens at your physical surroundings. The lens also displays digital objects that can be tied to physical things. You could, for example, virtually furnish an empty room you're actually standing in — then use commands to change wall colors, move furniture around, and so forth.

You use "gestures" to manipulate your virtual environment. To select, mark up, reshape, or move virtual objects, you use a finger tap that's directly analogous to tapping a touchscreen. But to tap HoloLens's holographic screen, you hold your hand up in front of the lens and use your index finger to tap. (At the demo, we had to practice this gesture before we were trusted with the headset.)

Voice commands are obviously important for this type of wearable device. Multiple microphones in the headset are supposed to pick up and correctly interpret your spoken commands, while ignoring any extraneous surrounding noises. It'll be interesting to see how well voice recognition works when confronted with a good Scottish brogue.

The live test drive: Virtual gaming

Computer gaming will, of course, be one of the first popular applications for HoloLens. At the developer event, we were each outfitted with a device and played a round of Project X-ray, a demonstration space-alien shooter game. (Any game that gets you off the couch can't be all bad.)

In this case, you start the game by spinning 360 degrees so that HoloLens can map the room. You then blast away at bad guys crawling through the room's walls while also ducking and weaving to avoid getting shot yourself. I don't do much gaming because I don't find sitting at a keyboard entertaining. But in the holographic environment, the enemy can come from any direction, so I had to jump around to avoid them.

The 3D computer graphics and sound were impressive. And yet, some parts of the demo were lame. Shooting the enemy with the standard HoloLens tap-gesture isn't going to cut it for most gamers. I assume software and accessory developers will soon be creating more interesting alternatives.

I also don't have a solid impression of what merging physical and virtual worlds feels like. You're so focused on the game that real objects simply disappear.

Still, it's early days for HoloLens. As one software engineer put it, the demo was like virtual-reality Pong.

Microsoft's reps stated that the Developers Edition of HoloLens will come out in Q1 of next year, priced at $3000. When we'll see a retail version, and at what price, they wouldn't say.

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