Three months after Microsoft first opened orders for the development edition of its Hololens augmented reality headset, the expensive devices are still thin on the ground. We were invited by CSIRO's Data61 group to try one of the few Hololens units in Australia at the moment. Here's what we thought.
To start out, let's run through what the Hololens actually is.
The Hololens is completely self-contained. Even though we've known this from the beginning, the temptation is always to compare it to VR headsets like the Vive or Oculus Rift, which function more like head-mounted monitors. The Hololens, on the other hand, is a device in itself: more like a smartphone that you can wear on your head. While it has wireless connectivity (and is otherwise completely wireless unless it needs charging), it doesn't need to be connected to another device to function.
It comes loaded with Cortana, apps and games. The Hololens is entirely voice-controllable via Cortana, through which you can take actions such as taking photos or recording video, or opening one of the various apps on the device. It has the same kind of applications you would expect to see on a phone -- a web browser in Microsoft Edge, a Skype client, and a camera that can take photos and videos in mixed reality. The Hololens also comes pre-loaded with a number of games, though apps seem to outnumber them at this point in time.
Windowed apps like the internet browser or Skype can be placed around the room, fixed on various surfaces, and resized as needed. This ability to create a virtual workspace (or playspace) is one of the biggest areas of potential for the Hololens in everyday use, both at home and in work environments.
If you don't want to use voice controls, you can use gestures. While the Hololens comes with a 'Clicker' -- a button that is essentially only used to select things -- you can also use your thumb and forefinger in a pinching motion to replace the standard 'click' interaction. By holding the pinch, you can also click and drag, which is useful with the Hololens' ability to position and set apps on walls. Combined with a cursor controlled by your gaze, this click makes up a large part of most interactions with the Hololens.
The only other gesture I used in this demo was the 'bloom' -- a gesture made of your fingers opening, palm up that will bring you to the Hololens' home menu. I found this gesture difficult to make register properly, although I got better with it as the demo went on. Other gestures recognisable by the Hololens are often app-specific, though updates to the device's software continue to add more supported gestures.
Once you get the hang of it, interaction in various apps is surprisingly intuitive. I played around with two of the standard Hololens apps during my brief demo.
One was an app simply called Holograms, which is kind of like clip art in mixed reality. Holograms gives you a few pages of various 3D models, both animated and static, which you can place around a room to create a virtual display. Prior to my arrival one of the guys from Data61 had placed a few holograms around the room for me to discover -- including one that was initially hidden around a corner of the space -- and I subsequently added a few more for whoever would be using the Holograms app next.
While simple, the act of decorating a virtual space was surprisingly enjoyable, and I could definitely imagine it as a collaborative activity. It was also great evidence that a game like Minecraft, with its focus on building and creating, would be perfect for this platform (even though I didn't get to demo the game itself this time).
I also played RoboRaid, formerly known as Project X-Ray, one of the earliest games shown for the platform. You start by looking around to let the Hololens map your space, and then it uses this data to have robot enemies break through the walls or surfaces of your room to attack you. The gameplay is pretty simple -- use the tap gesture to shoot, use the voice command 'X-Ray' to use a special power and physically move to dodge incoming attacks. The video above is Microsoft's official video for RoboRaid. Below is how I looked while playing it.
As well as trying the two standard Microsoft apps, I also had a look at some of the content that Data61 is developing itself. Their content comes from partnerships with the National Gallery of Australia and their 3D scans of specimens from the Australian National Insect Collection.
I got up close and personal with a 3D scanned weevil, far larger than its life-sized equivalent, as well as an intricate sculpture from the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. It's a new way of interacting with the kinds of displays you would normally encounter in a museum, and I could see AR technology becoming widely used for such institutions.
The FOV and visual quality can still be a bit of a let-down. The field of view is still quite small -- I had to stand a good two or three meters away from the weevil model above to fit it all in view. It's distracting while playing a game like RoboRaid, as enemies disappear out of your view and can be a little tricky to spot again. You also can't get too close to virtual objects -- there is a limit of about 40cm before the model either clips or disappears. There are a few slight kinks with depth in general that are a bit clunky to work around -- placing objects, for example, requires a motion of grabbing and pushing multiple times if you need to place it on a far wall.
You won't need headphones with the Hololens. They're built into the device along with all the other sensors, cameras and hardware. The sound quality was actually one of the most impressive things about the Hololens during my experience of it. Although the device doesn't cover your ears, it delivers lifelike sound that rivals that of expensive over-ear headphones, while still allowing you to easily hear the real world around you.
As Matt Adcock of Data61 explained, the speaker technology mimics the structure of a real ear to deliver high-quality sound. There is some leakage, as you can hear sound from the device when someone else is using it, but it isn't nearly as loud as you would expect it to be. Of course, if you do want to use headphones anyway, the Hololens also has a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Hololens is as comfortable as it can be. At 579g, it's a bit weightier than both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, but smart design means you don't feel it as much. The double-band design lets you carry more of the weight on the diagonal band, so that the horizontal band doesn't press down too much on your nose. The inner band tightens at the back with a simple wheel.
It's not perfect, of course, I had a pretty pronounced mark on the bridge of my nose after a few minutes play time, but given more time to adjust the device I imagine I could find a more comfortable position for it. The Hololens fit easily over glasses to the point where I didn't even notice a difference -- and my frames are on the chunky side as well.
The Hololens has had a few upgrades since it was previewed at E3 2015. In our last test of the technology, Lifehacker's Chris Jager noted that the device had to be manually calibrated to your eyes with a "separate focusing gizmo". Now, the Hololens luckily comes with "automatic pupillary distance calibration". It also receives regular updates from Microsoft, the most recent coming in time for Computex.
It's not perfect, but it still makes me want to go back and play. I've been quite reserved on the Hololens thus far -- it still seemed too uncertain, too far away to put any hopes in. Now, after getting to play with one for half an hour or so, I can definitely see the potential of the Hololens for both personal and industry use.
Remember all those scene in Star Wars where the rebels stand around a table looking at 3D holograms of various strategic points? That's possible with the Hololens. And while you've probably never said "gee, I wish I could build a collaborative Minecraft world in my living room with my housemate/partner/family," it's a totally new (and fun) way to game. In fact, the collaborative potential of the Hololens is one of the elements that appealed to me most, with the idea of creating a virtual space and then sharing it with your friends.
Of course, that future is still a while away. The development version of the Hololens costs a staggering $US3000, and even if you have that cash to burn, it's incredibly difficult to actually buy one. But one day it'll get a consumer release so I'll just say, tentatively: I'm excited for the future of the Hololens.