Microsoft HoloLens, the company’s holographic, augmented reality headset (or mixed reality if you’re being picky), took us all by surprise when it was unveiled at a Windows 10 event at the beginning of 2015.
The HoloLens headset is a bold piece of hardware. It was also the first sign that Microsoft was taking AR and VR seriously, with the second sign being its line of lower-end Windows Mixed Reality headsets. However, it also comes with a bold price: $3,000. Whether you bought the Development Edition in March 2016 or grabbed the version opened up to anyone with a Microsoft account a couple months later, that bold price stayed bold. Ouch.
Leila Martine, Microsoft’s Director of New Device Experiences, introduced me not just to the HoloLens, but to the thinking behind the almost cyberpunk smart glasses.
“This lives between two worlds, the physical world and the virtual world. The human world is physical, and the computer world is the virtual. How do you get back information from the virtual world into the real world? HoloLens.”
Running Windows 10 Holographic edition, the essence of HoloLens is that it overlays information so it is ‘in the room’ with the wearer. As a standalone computer it doesn’t need to be connected to a desktop or laptop computer, it is genuinely standalone. The built-in sensors map the environment it is in so there is no need for any external positioning devices. It also maps the user, so it can see where you are looking and register hand gestures that act as the control inputs.
Reviewing the Microsoft HoloLens dev kit is a bit like taking a trip to the future, returning home and then trying to describe it to your friends. Today’s version isn’t quite ready for prime time, and it may even be decades before AR headsets reach their full potential. But holy smokes, has Microsoft taken an impressive first step.
Before we jump in, keep in mind that “review” means something a little different when
we’re talking about pre-consumer developer hardware. Usually we publish these things to help you decide whether or not to buy products, but in this case that answer is simple: Unless you’re a developer or filthy-rich early adopter, don’t buy HoloLens right now. Its app selection is still small, and the consumer version will almost certainly cost less and improve on other things.
This is more about looking at where the tech is today, what it tells us about the future (near-term and long-term) and what needs to change to get us there.
With that in mind, what the developer version of HoloLens does is lay the groundwork for a type of product that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. While we already have virtual reality and we’ve seen other products described as augmented reality (AR), this is what we’d call the first “real” AR headset. Not only does HoloLens overlay virtual objects on top of your real-world view, but it also knows where your floor, walls, lamps and tables are – letting virtual and real intermingle as if they were all bound by the same physical limits.
There are other companies now working on similar things behind closed doors (including startup Magic Leap), but Microsoft firmly planted its flag in this AR turf when it revealed HoloLens 19 months ago, and no other public product is doing anything remotely close to this.
The ultimate AR headset of the future, the one ripped out of a million sci-fi fantasies, will do what HoloLens does today, while also adding things like a 180-degree field of view (FOV), all-day battery life and a form factor that doesn’t make you look like RoboCop. What we have today is a decidedly at-home piece of gear, with only a few hours of uptime and a disappointingly small field of view.
Build quality and comfort :
HoloLens is essentially comprised of two rings: a thicker, plastic outer one that contains the guts and a slimmer, cushioned inner one that wraps your head. The inner ring’s fit adjusts by sliding forward and backward a roller residing on its back.
That cushioning is a small touch, but one I appreciate for making it easier to forget you’re wearing the viewer and focus on the AR imagery in front of you.
The device isn’t supposed to sit on your nose, but I found its rubber nose guard to inevitably fall down my nose no matter how often I pried the HoloLens forward. Thankfully, it’s optional and comes off easily. HoloLens feels a lot better for me with it off.
It looks like it belongs in the office but would blend well in any living room.
I also struggled to get HoloLens to fit every time I put it on. I had to regularly re-tighten, re-situate and realign the headgear. When everything fit nicely, the AR imagery was in full view and it felt right. But if it was too tight, too high up or too far forward, my experience was hindered.
Standing still made for the best overall viewing experience. The adjustment issues cropped up especially when I would move around, effectively defeating the point in HoloLens.
If you have short hair or it’s pulled back, you might not have as much trouble as someone with long, loose hair, like myself. It may have been my ability to adjust, but I had a slight headache after I took HoloLens off, like I had been wearing a baseball cap that was two sizes too small.
The headgear I used was untethered, and I didn’t need my hands for anything other than selecting my “hologram” to move it. It wasn’t wired up for battery life, like the first early prototypes shown to press.
Fitting issues aside, when HoloLens fits right, it’s comfortable. But, like all virtual reality (VR) and AR headgear, its weight is front loaded. You can’t help but feel a noticeable weight hanging off your forehead.
It fits rather snugly around the cranium
The weight isn’t uncomfortable, but it is significant. If Microsoft can somehow counterbalance the weight on the sides or back, it would likely alleviate the front-heavy sensation.
I wear glasses, and I used HoloLens with them on. They don’t press into my face or feel tight around my head, unlike with most VR headsets. I also didn’t get nauseous, a frequent occurrence when I wear Oculus Rift.
It helps that I can still see my surroundings with HoloLens, so I don’t feel disoriented or claustrophobic. If only the HoloLens see-through screen weren’t so dark (but the room was dimly lit, so it may be just right for a brighter room).
Walking backward in HoloLens feels most uneasy, as I can’t quickly turn to see whether something is behind me. The headgear also obstructs my upper peripheral view, so some of my vision is obscured.
HoloLens looks and feels like a premium device. Nothing about it screams “cheap”, which is reflected by the developer edition price.
The gadget looks like it belongs in the office but would also blend well in any living room. As is, HoloLens feels too delicate to stay clean and unscathed in, say, a construction site.
I find myself handling HoloLens gently, so unless Microsoft does some ruggedizing, you’ll probably want to keep HoloLens out of the reach of youngsters.
The Headset :
When we first saw images of the HoloLens, we described it as “part Google Glass, part Oculus Rift, part helmet from RoboCop”. So it’s safe to say it’s not an example of the inconspicuous wearables we’ll see (or not) in the next five years. But don’t let that put you off – what’s important here is the tech and what this headset can do.
The headset itself wraps around your head with quite a thick visor-like band that’s designed to evenly distribute all 579g of its weight of the headset along the crown of your head, avoiding putting pressure on your eyes and nose. That band is also adjustable to a variety of adult heads – so yeah, this isn’t for children. Most importantly, there are also no wires and no phones involved – it’s a standalone device.
The stars of the show here are the holographic high-definition lenses that use a projection system to create multidimensional full-color images with low latency. There are also a host of advanced sensors, like ambient light and four environment sensing cameras, that can work together to figure out what you’re doing and what environment you’re in. All of this information is then processed by the custom HPU (holographic processing unit), mapping everything out in real time.
There are no fans to keep the headset cool, but there is a vent that allows all that heat to escape from. All of this is backed up by 2GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. As for connectivity, it supports both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which had been expected. We also know that the processor uses an Intel 32-bit architecture and an unspecified GPU.
If you need to take photos or record mixed reality video, there’s a 2-megapixel HD camera with audio capture, which uses an array of four microphones. Oh, and there are also speakers just above the ears. They use spatial audio, and Microsoft says they synthesize the audio so you can hear your holograms from anywhere in the room.
We now also know that it’ll come boxed with a carry case, an AC adapter to power it up and a spare nose-arch. There’s also a new Bluetooth Clicker accessory to use as an alternative means to navigate if you don’t want to constantly use air tap gestures, which kind of look like a super enthusiastic pinch.
On the subject of battery life, we now know that it’ll be 2-3 hours for active use. It might be disappointing news for some that it won’t last an entire day, but let’s be honest here – who’s going to use it for 24 hours? You can use it when it’s being charged via Micro USB though and it has an impressive standby time of two weeks.
The Depth Camera :
Part of the HoloLens magic is the depth camera. It works like a smaller version of the Kinect camera on Xbox, but it uses one-tenth of the power and has a field of view equivalent to a 15-inch screen from two feet away. The depth camera is what HoloLens uses to “see” and understand your environment. So they can figure out where your desk is, which hand you’re holding out for gestures and help track your head movements with help from other sensors on the device.
Blending virtual models, environments and ‘holograms’ with, well, reality, means that the lenses are transparent, similar to those found in Google Glass as well as rival smart glasses and goggles from Sony and others. There are two – one for each eye – and they are made up of three layers of glass (blue, green and red).
A ‘light engine’ above the lenses projects light into the headset and tiny corrugated grooves in each layer of glass diffract these light particles, making them bounce around and helping to trick your eyes into perceiving virtual objects at virtual distances.
The technology is based on Windows 10 and once the HoloLens has mapped the room it blends what Microsoft is calling holograms into the real environment.
how does it work?
Microsoft’s HoloLens is not actually producing 3D images that everyone can see; this isn’t “Star Trek.”
Instead of everyone walking into a room made to reproduce 3D images, Microsoft’s goggles show images only the wearer can see. Everyone else will just think you’re wearing goofy-looking glasses.
Another key thing about HoloLens is what Microsoft is trying to accomplish.
The company is not trying to transport you to a different world, but rather bring the wonders of a computer directly to the one you’re living in. Microsoft is overlaying images and objects onto our living rooms.
As a HoloLens wearer, you’ll still see the real world in front of you. You can walk around and talk to others without worrying about bumping into walls.
Microsoft envisions the HoloLens as both a personal and a workplace device.
The goggles will track your movements, watch your gaze and transform what you see by blasting light at your eyes (it doesn’t hurt). Because the device tracks where you are, you can use hand gestures — right now it’s only a midair click by raising and lowering your finger — to interact with the 3D images.
There’s a whole bunch of other hardware that’s designed to help the HoloLens’ effects feel believable. The device has a plethora of sensors to sense your movements in a room and it uses this information along with layers of colored glass to create images you can interact with or investigate from different angles. Want to see the back of a virtual bike in the middle of your kitchen? Just walk to the other side of it.
The goggles also have a camera that looks at the room, so the HoloLens knows where tables, chairs and other objects are. It then uses that information to project 3D images on top of and even inside them — place virtual dynamite on your desk and you might blow a hole to see what’s inside.
With Skype video chatting, HoloLens users can let others see through their eyes to help with tasks and even doodle right on top of your line of vision.