In Depth: Microsoft HoloLens offers a kind of magic virtual reality can’t

Someone standing 10 feet away from me is making furious pinching motions in the air, aiming in my direction. To an observer not wearing Microsoft HoloLens, this person might look foolish, even bizarre.

Someone standing 10 feet away from me is making furious pinching motions in the air, aiming in my direction. To an observer not wearing Microsoft HoloLens, this person might look foolish, even bizarre.

Not to me. I’m pinching at him just as ardently, as well as five other people in a room of more than 50.

The initiated know we’re playing a game. Each of us has a demon-faced avatar called a Polly just above our shoulder, and the pinching motions – meeting index finger to thumb – send fiery metal balls at the others’ avatars.

If we band together and shoot the balls at a blue orb floating over a metallic claw-like base that only the six of us can see, we can open up a hole in the floor (or table, or wherever) and attack an avatar located below.

My pod of players are all connected to the same computer acting as a hub, allowing us to see each others’ color-coded Polly and the orb we need to destroy. Other groups have their own hub, so while we can see them milling around the room and pinching the air, we aren’t interacting with them. They aren’t part of our game.

I can walk anywhere and still locate the players I need to shoot at thanks to their avatars. In a much less sinister sense, it’s like having robotic vision that allows you to see your “enemy” in a crowd that includes people who aren’t your targets.

The blue orb and base serve as the focal point to our wanderings. We can even move this structure as a team if we circle around it, shift as a group and one of us sets it down with a pinching motion. Anyone can utter “Reset location” and the base will unlatch, letting us move it once again until another player chooses a new spot for it.

It’s this simple, giddy game played at Build 2016 during my second-ever Holographic Academy that crystallized for me the awesome potential of HoloLens. Unlike Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, VR viewers that offer amazing immersion in unreal realms, Microsoft’s AR headset turns the world around you into a virtual playing field.

The power of reality

HoloLens, which began shipping to developers last week, is not a virtual reality headset that completely immerses you somewhere else.

Instead, it overlays digital images onto the real world. You can still see everything in your environment, from couches to tables to computers to people, but if a HoloLens experience is activated, you’ll also see things that aren’t really there, like vibrant Pollys and prismatic shards as that blue orb is blown up.

HoloLens’ mixed reality induces a psychedelic feeling: I’d be having a perfectly normal conversation with my Holographic Academy mentor, but if I looked away or another player walked into my field of view, I’d see their bouncing avatars or the pulsating base. My mentor couldn’t see any of this because she wasn’t wearing HoloLens, but I could.

The other virtual reality headsets on the market transport you to other places, and all the major ones do this excellently in their own right. HTC Vive, as our Nick Pino describes in his hands-on review of the headset, is probably the best of them all at this.

HoloLens will take you to another planet, like Mars, but what I’ve found most intriguing during my time with the headset is that it lets you add magic to the real world. Any room can become something wonderful with mixed reality. To make it even better, Microsoft is throwing in other people, too.

With most VR experiences I’ve tried, there’s a wall of sorts between myself and what I’m seeing, no matter how real it is, namely because I’m not actually in that world. That wall disintegrates wearing HoloLens.

No barriers

Microsoft said during the session that the No. 1 requested feature for the headset was sharing, and I think it’s on its way to making this one of the key selling points of HoloLens.

Anyone could potentially create a game or experience for HoloLens, then share it with others who own a headset, allowing everyone to interact not only with the augmented elements of the game but also with each other.

While Oculus Rift lets you meet other players’ avatars in virtual rooms and you can engage in multi-player games with anyone on the planet, HoloLens allows for true social interaction.

You can talk to players who are literally breathing the same air as you, seek them out, and rub it in their faces when you score a direct hit on their avatars.

One of HoloLens’ great pluses is its unlimited freedom of movement because you aren’t tethered to a PC, as is the case with every major headset right now. My mentor said that in testing, they’ve found the holograms stay visible even down long hallways or in other rooms.

The in-house team really hasn’t hit on its distance limit yet, she said, meaning your HoloLens game could stretch as far as you wanted (though you’d likely need a Wi-Fi connection for the most robust experience).

It’s these two elements – seeing and interacting with real-world objects, including people, and being able to move untethered – that for me give HoloLens an edge over its virtual reality competitors.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still would love to own an Oculus Rift. But, if someone forced me to pick, I’d choose HoloLens because as a non-gamer, I see myself getting more use and enjoyment out of it in the long-run.

HoloLens hardware and hangups

The HoloLens Development Edition that’s shipping to developers is a high-end device. At $3,000 (about £2,160/AU$4,202), it should be.

The majority of the headset is made of plastic and the bands have a soft, rubberized feel. It was easier for me to get the headset to fit snuggly than my first time, though it was still weighty and would frequently slip down my face.

Microsoft lists HoloLens at 579g/1.2 pounds, but it felt heavier than that. It could be that is how much it weighs, but because so much of its heft is in the front, it feels like it’s heavier on your face than it might actually be.

Here’s where Oculus Rift has HoloLens beat. Unlike Rift, HoloLens’ weight isn’t balanced around your whole head. It’s easier for the headset to slip down your head because it’s not as securely strapped on.

The resolution and latency of the holograms were remarkably better than my first experience with the headset a year ago. The holograms were more vibrant and sharper, and those fiery balls moved smoothly towards their targets.

For all its improvements, my biggest qualm with HoloLens over its VR counterparts remains its field of view. Microsoft is essentially projecting the holograms through the headset’s two lenses, so it’s limited in where that projection can go.

Whereas Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR offer full immersion, HoloLens holographs live within the limited space of the lenses. You can tell where the boundary of that space is because at some points, you can literally see it.

It’s like having a slightly lighter rectangle layered on top of everything you’re seeing. If your gaze wanders outside this rectangle, which is where the holograms live, then the holograms are cut off or disappear completely.

When you do see the holograms, it’s amazing, but it’s all-too-easy for the headset to slip, or for your gaze to leave the sanctioned space.

Did this prevent me from enjoying HoloLens? As irksome as it got at some points, I still didn’t want to take off the headset, and I wanted to put it right back as soon as I could.

The field of view wouldn’t prevent me from dropping $3,000 on a HoloLens, but its weight distribution would. If Microsoft can better balance HoloLens’ weight – and I came into a spare three grand – HoloLens would be my next big purchase.

The journey’s just begun

HoloLens isn’t just a gaming device: Microsoft sees it having applications in education, medicine, space and work.

With its ability to allow many people at once to see the same holograms, HoloLens could easily become a must-have device in offices and job sites around the globe.

Instead of computer models shared on a flat screen, workers could see life-like representations of products manifest before their eyes. Someone could move a component here, another change an angle there, and before you know it the product has come to life in hologram form.

Microsoft also recently demonstrated holoportation, where a 3D hologram of a person located somewhere else is visible to someone wearing HoloLens. It’s not true teleportation, but does allow you to interact with someone as if they were really there.

Oculus isn’t intent on keeping Rift as a gaming device, though right now, that’s how it’s best described. One day it will add social elements and let people hold virtual meetings with anyone in the world, but unlike HoloLens, you won’t see people in the same room – or even see the room you’re in.

HoloLens is only just now getting to developers, so its apps, games and experiences will only grow from here. Right now, its offerings are minuscule, but what I’ve seen of the headset show it has unbelievable potential.

Every headset on the market or coming soon offers something incredible. It’s an amazing time for virtual and augmented reality, and I feel lucky to witness it.

But niceties aside, I truly believe HoloLens has the edge over everything else in the VR/AR space. It is so well crafted, so enjoyable to use, and doesn’t suffer from the same limitations as its VR counterparts.

It has it’s own limitations, to be sure, but I think Microsoft and its new cadre of developers are going to work around them and will deliver some magical mixed reality.

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