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Our Experience With Microsoft's HoloLens

by Bryan Vore on Jun 18, 2015 at 12:27 PM

Like every virtual reality or augmented reality technology, it's difficult to absorb the experience just by watching a video or seeing a stage presentation. I tried out several demos to put the latest iterations of Microsoft's HoloLens through its paces.

The first step is to get the distance between my eyes measured with a binocular-looking device that you'd see at the eye doctor. This ensures optimal calibration for each user. Since it is prototype hardware, the demo crew was very careful when placing the HoloLens kit on my head. I had to grab it at specified points and tighten it in the back. Unlike earlier iterations, this hardware was completely cordless, and there was no need for a separate pack of electronics to hang around my neck.

While there are no headphones over the ears, speakers near them emit sound effects tied to the experience while still allowing users to hear the real world around them. This, along with the transparent visor, serves to enhance the world around you rather than shut it out for a virtual experience. As we've heard before, the AR field is only a rectangle hovering in front of your face rather than taking up your entire field of vision.

The first demo is called project X-ray. I'm in an empty, small box of a room. The walls start to crack and a robotic chute bursts out. Mechanical scorpions and hovering drones pour out. I target the pests with my head like X-men's Cyclops and pull the right trigger on a wireless Xbox One controller to fire. I move around the room as new holes in the walls appear to take out the enemies. When they pop a shot off, I duck and swerve out of the way to avoid damage. Finally, the queen emerges. I use the X-ray power by hitting LT on the controller and time slows down, turning all the robots orange. I destroy her drones and nail her with a laser blast from my eyes. She responds by sweeping a red laser horizontally across the room, forcing me to duck under it. I eventually take her down and examine a scoring screen displayed on one of the walls showing my accuracy, damage, kills, and leaderboard position (I got second behind one of the developers).

In another room, I try out the Minecraft demo shown onstage at Microsoft's press conference (shown at the top of this story). I look at a virtual screen on the wall to see the traditional view of Minecraft on the ground level. I toggle on TV-style 3D to add depth to the imagery. Then I toggle on the immersive mode that makes the 3D far more impressive. It's like you're looking through a window into a real Minecraft set. On a table behind me, a zoomed out look at the map shows an enormous mountain and a tiny Steve is running around on it. I call down a bolt of lightning near him with a voice command and he runs off, jumps in a mine cart, and rides down the mountain to a valley below. Next, I pinch the air and raise my arm. The world raises up and I can see an elaborate underground cave network. I pinch again and drag the world horizontally, generating new elements of the map on the fly within the limits of the table.

The final HoloLens demo serves as an intro to the Halo 5: Guardians' Warzone mode on the show floor. The booth is made to look like the inside of the UNSC Infinity. Several holographic waypoints appear to guide me through the hallways. Next I look through a window and see a 3D view of the hanger with ships landing and soldiers walking around. The final area is arranged so that other players and I stand around a holographic briefing table (seen above) as Commander Palmer offers a rundown on the Warzone rules and map. It's a useful overview and the closest I've ever been to experiencing the Princess Leia hologram from Star Wars.

Overall, HoloLens seems like an awesome theme park attraction, but it's hard to imagine this tech in a home that has art on the walls and furniture in the rooms. Most important of all, Microsoft must solve the issue of the limited viewing screen in favor of full peripheral effects if it ever hopes to fully win over consumers. I'm definitely impressed with what I've seen so far with this early prototype, and hope to see big leaps as the tech advances.