WALK­ING ON AR

As VR evolves, Mi­crosoft throws in a curve ball

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At its Win­dows 10 event in Jan­uary, Mi­crosoft showed off a sur­prise ad­di­tion com­ing to its plat­form called Win­dows Holo­graphic. Holo­graphic will run on a new HMD dubbed HoloLens. What Mi­crosoft ea­gerly calls holo­grams, we’d rather call aug­mented re­al­ity.

HoloLens is the most ad­vanced AR head­set that we’ve seen to date, even as a pro­to­type. In the fi­nal hard­ware, Mi­crosoft claims that the head­set will be com­pletely wires-free, with bat­tery, CPU, GPU and a third holo­pro­ces­sor (ded­i­cated to in­ter­pret­ing the data the head­set pulls in by scan­ning its sur­round­ings) all in­te­grated into the de­vice it­self. The pro­to­type hard­ware we’ve tried isn’t there yet: the pro­cess­ing guts are all con­tained in a unit that is slung around your neck, and the head­set it­self is still teth­ered to a base PC.

The most im­pres­sive thing about the HoloLens hard­ware turns out to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously the most dis­ap­point­ing. The head­set re­ally does com­bine dig­i­tal pro­jec­tions with what you can see of the real world, and at times – see­ing the voxel cubes of a Minecraft fortress ap­pear on a cof­fee ta­ble; us­ing a vir­tual pick to break through a real wall and see­ing a vir­tual cave be­hind it – that can feel in­cred­i­ble. It looks and feels un­nat­u­rally real, and that’s the po­ten­tial of AR. But there are lim­i­ta­tions, too. The HoloLens unit’s field of view is con­fined to the cen­tre of your vi­sion, maybe 40 per­cent of all you can see. Ori­ent that aug­mented area over the cof­fee ta­ble in Mi­crosoft’s Holobuilder demo (es­sen­tially a stripped-down Minecraft), and you see a fortress and creep­ers milling about. Tilt your head to the side enough to move your cen­tre of vi­sion, though, and it all dis­ap­pears, re­placed by the mun­dan­ity of re­al­ity.

In its cur­rent form, HoloLens isn’t nearly as im­mer­sive as a VR ex­pe­ri­ence, and it’s more limited in terms of in­ter­ac­tiv­ity – Mi­crosoft de­moed a sin­gle midair fin­ger click ges­ture for con­trol, though it also sup­ports voice com­mands. When it comes to games, how­ever, VR (par­tic­u­larly Ocu­lus’s Cres­cent Bay pro­to­type head­set) does a much bet­ter job of sell­ing pres­ence, since your en­tire field of view is wrapped up in a vir­tual world. Of course, that’s not the goal of AR, but un­til it has a broader field of view, HoloLens’s com­bi­na­tion of vir­tual and real will feel con­stricted.

Mi­crosoft’s short demos also failed to con­vinc­ingly show off how the head­set will be able to read its en­vi­ron­ment, and how soft­ware will be able to in­te­grate into re­al­ity. It’s ex­cit­ing tech­nol­ogy, but still un­proven. HoloLens’s price and ex­act re­lease date are still un­knowns, too, though Mi­crosoft plans to re­lease the head­set along­side Win­dows 10 some time in the sec­ond half of 2015.

HoloLens is the most ad­vanced AR head­set that we’ve seen to date, even as a pro­to­type

For all the pitch video’s prom­ise of your en­tire vi­sion be­ing trans­formed, HoloLens’s pro­to­type form is let­ter­boxed. It’s fan­tas­tic tech, but less en­gag­ing than full VR

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