WALKING ON AR
As VR evolves, Microsoft throws in a curve ball
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