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Saturday, 12 March 2016

Microsoft HoloLens review: Future is here with a BANG!!!

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The HoloLens that Microsoft will ship will be a Star Trek-style visor that wraps around your head but doesn't isolate you from the world, with the Intel SoC and custom Holographic Processing Unit built in. What I tried out in the labs hidden (rather cheekily) under the Microsoft visitor centre didn't look like that, but the engineers and developers who built it say the experience I had with the developer rig is essentially the same.

The HoloLens developer rig is built into a frame that slips onto your head and gets strapped into the right position; there's a sensor array over your eyes to track where you're looking and sensors on the frame to track how your head moves and the Holographic Processing Unit hangs around your neck on a strap (it's about the size and weight of a car radio). Someone needs to help you fit it and before you do that you have to get the distance between your pupils measured. And when you have it set, there's a power cord coming down from the ceiling rigged to move with you as you walk.
All of that will vanish into the final product, so what I tried is very obviously early hardware - like the custom developer kits Microsoft makes for early Xbox developers. Microsoft didn't let us photograph the developer rig, and you need a special camera to capture the HoloLens view so our images were supplied by Microsoft; they're a rather idealised version of the slightly grainier view I saw.
The HPU, as Microsoft calls it, isn't that much of a misnomer (less so than suggesting that a retina screen has the same resolution as the human retina, say). What you see isn't a holograph or a hologram; it's a projection - but it's being projected onto holographically printed lenses, which lets Microsoft produce very cheaply the extremely complex lenses that turn the projection into the 3D image you see.
The HPU turns the graphics into the right signal to project onto those lenses as well as processing information from the sensors that tell it where you're looking and how you're moving your head. It will speed up voice recognition and spatial sound processing, too.
That doesn't just let you see the digital world projected around you; it lets you see it on top of the real world. You can see the person standing next to you and talk to them, avoid walking into walls and chairs and even look at a computer screen, because HoloLens detects the edge and doesn't project over it so you don't need to keep taking it on and off as you work. You can take notes or answer email on a computer with a keyboard or a pen instead of trying to force that kind of close up work into the world of gestures and gaze.
If you wear glasses, this close-fitting headset isn't ideal. It's hard to make it fit comfortably - I found it either pushed my glasses down onto my nose or pressed them hard into my face, and I much preferred using it without my glasses on. As I'm short sighted, that made it harder to see detail. Talking to people outside Microsoft who've tried the actual HoloLens headset, it's light and comfortable to wear but the first version will probably still press on your glasses more than you'd like. And if you wear varifocals, you move your eyes automatically to look through the right part of your glasses for what you're focusing on; that can mean you look down at things that aren't in view for HoloLens (or for someone on a Skype call to your HoloLens) or look up and lose the HoloLens image.
The good news is that even if you're very sensitive to motion and prone to get VR sickness, or if you get headaches wearing 3D glasses, HoloLens is comfortable to use. I'm very prone to both of those and have problems with many other systems; after a brief moment the first two times I put it on when I could tell I was adjusting to what I was seeing, I had no problems at all with nausea, headaches or the other discomfort that can come when you trick your brain into thinking it's seeing something real.
The HoloLens projected screen moves as you move your head and you control apps either with voice commands or by using the equivalent of a mouse click - the air tap. You just hold your fist out in front of you where you can see it then raise and lower your finger. I didn't have to worry about getting it in the right place or moving it at the right speed; as long as I made sure my other fingers and thumb were out of the way, HoloLens got the gesture every time.

Digital reality

I tried three different applications with the HoloLens. I also got to watch several people using the Holo Studio 3D building tool, which has the most sophisticated controls, using a combination of gaze, gesture and voice commands to let you design objects you can see in the real world, so you know they're the size you want before you spend time and money 3D-printing them.
The most engaging was playing HoloBuilder; inspired by Minecraft and built with the help of the Minecraft team, this is a game that lets you build a digital landscape that exists in your physical space. Think the giant LEGO setup in the basement of Will Ferrell's house in The LEGO Movie, only invisible until you put HoloLens on, and built both on top of and underneath your furniture - and even extending under the floor and into the walls.
Using voice commands and the air tap gesture and my own real feet, I walked around a village, tickled a sheep to stop it falling off the table, dug through a (real) bench to make a hole, blew up some TNT to drop zombies into the lava pool that was in the chamber I'd dug through to, then blew a hole in the wall and lit a lamp to see the bats flying through the caverns in the wall.
Like Minecraft, half the fun is that your creations are obviously digital, but seeing them perched on real tables and benches was even more fun. This combination of virtual and physical worlds was delightful and immersive and shows the obvious gaming and entertainment potential here.
But the other two apps I tried were actually more impressive and certainly more useful. Making a Skype call from HoloLens is a good way to try out voice and gesture commands; you can look at the person you want to call in the address book - which is a grid of faces - then air tap to call them. The video call doesn't jump around the room if you move; it sits in one place unless you look too far away and then it moves back into view, or you can pin it in place.
The person you're calling doesn't need a HoloLens; they see in Skype what you're looking at and they can draw diagrams on the video that appear in your view. So if you're helping someone change a tyre or fix their dishwasher or fit a new light switch, you don't have to explain what they need to look for or pull out or unscrew - you can take a pen and show them.
This would fantastic for teaching and training, for remote support or for getting an expert opinion; imagine a remote handyman who could give customers advice (and charge them for it) or a repair service that always turns up with the right part because you've shown them what they're fixing in advance. It would also be a really interesting way to have a meeting where you're collaborating remotely on physical objects, not just the usual documents and presentations.
Remote working is something NASA has to do, but the OnSight system the Jet Propulsion Lab is building with Microsoft made me feel like I was walking on Mars. Some years ago I visited the Supervisualisation Lab at the university of San Diego, where they have a wall of screens that can show a life-size image of Mars using the photos sent back by the Mars Rover and I could look out at Mars like looking out of a window. HoloLens meant I could step out onto the surface of Mars and walk around, bending over to look at rocks, turning round to see the view and looking up to see the sky. This is where I most wanted to have peripheral vision because with HoloLens you only see what you're looking at; as you turn your head, the Rover suddenly comes into view and it's a rather large surprise.
OnSight isn't for digital tourism, delightful as that is; there are tools to tell the Rover where to go next to take photographs and samples - and the terrain that looks flat and easy to drive over on a PC screen is revealed as a treacherous series of slopes and ditches the Rover can easily fall down when you see it in 3D, so JPL scientists can look for an easy route before they air tap to give the Rover a target to photograph or burn with its laser.
They can also collaborate; other people in the landscape show up as stylised avatars, and a handy dotted line shows you where they're looking (HoloLens knows that, so it can show you), which avoids all the creepy 'uncanny valley' problems of realistic avatars. This is something we're going to have to work out social conventions for; when you say goodbye to someone miles away on the telephone it's easy to hang up, but when you can still see their avatar just turning away and ignoring them feels slightly rude. (Equally, watching someone use HoloLens is disturbing because they're turning and crouching and reaching out for things you can't see, and it's hard not to think they look strange.)
Walking around Mars with another scientist, or walking around an unfinished building and seeing where the walls will be, or being able to pull a virtual engine out of a physical car to see how it fits together so you can work out which screws to undo - there's a huge range of possibilities here, because this is far more than just a gaming system. And Microsoft is sensitive enough to privacy issues to have avoided the creepy feeling of using augmented reality to spy on the public world that Google Glass is so prone to. HoloLens doesn't just tag the physical world with information you can get other ways; it adds a realistic 3D digital world on top of (and underneath) it in a way that feels like magic and is delightful to use.

Early verdict

It's far too early to tell whether the HoloLens will be a success; only a select few have used the final design - instead of the early developer rig we tried out - so I can't comment first hand on how comfortable it is (with or without glasses).
I saw only four apps, one of which is more of a proof of concept (sorry Minecraft fans, HoloBuilder may not even ship). Price and battery life are both things I can only guess at. It's entirely possible that HoloLens may be more of a curiosity than a mainstream success. But if it takes off, and later models get smaller and lighter and less obtrusive, then Microsoft has just changed the world of computing again the way it did with Windows. HoloLens quickly feels natural and it's easy to see how useful it will be - and how much fun too.

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