Just a few short months ago, Microsoft took the wraps off their entry into what truly will be a next generation in computing, the HoloLens. While work on the project started some two years ago, Microsoft only started showing off this interactive wearable device at the January 21st event that was supposed to be all about Windows 10 consumer, but turned out to be much more than that.
In my first HoloLens experience, members of the press were given a somewhat similar tour, but with engineering hardware. That is, we were outfitted with a computing device the size of a book to hang around our neck, and tethered to computers in the room by a set of thick suspended cables. This time, we wore the same hardware you've seen onstage at keynotes in January and again on Wednesday at Build - not exactly a finished product, but sleek compared to what came before it.
One thing that was similar to the January event, we weren't allowed any photography (or electronic devices of any kind), and getting into the demonstration room was not unlike going through airport security screening, if not worse. At least we didn't have to take off our shoes.
Microsoft released some details this morning on the hardware tucked into the devices, and our only tethering this time came from a mini-usb cable connected to the device in order to load Universal apps, which we "wrote" in the session using Unity and Visual Studio, and which Alex (our "mentor", the group was split into about 24 2 person groups, with a computer for each attendee and a mentor for each pair) unplugged once the newly revised app was loaded.
In the 90 minute session, we created a Unity project for our HoloLens universal app, made some changes to C# files in Visual Studio, and built the app in Unity and compiled in VS.
This allowed us to manipulate a pair of suspended spheres, each about the size of a baseball, dropping them by finger gestures or voice commands after identifying them by "gaze", move the "stage" (which appeared as a large graph paper tablet) around our field of vision, turn on or off a 3D spatial grid that HoloLens used to navigate the space around it, and open up holes in the ground to peer through the floor into an imaginary world filled with flying paper cranes.
All of this was done, either through drag and drop manipulation of files and folders through Unity, or by changing a word or two in the less than 200 lines of C# code it took to complete the app (remember, Unity handles a graphics engine, so the physics involved in "gravity" manipulating a falling ball, or rendering complex shapes, or defining the grid, are all handed outside the scope of the code we amended).
This time around, it seemed to me that the holographic field of view was smaller compared to January, but the visuals appeared to be much improved. Both colors and translucency were much more vibrant from what I remember, but with the smaller field of view (probably a hardware rather than a software issue), it didn't seem as immersive an experience. Maybe I just wasn't quite as blown away this time, however, and any comparisons rely on my less than perfect memory of the January experience.
What stood out:
As Brandon, one of the HoloLens team members leading the demo, said, "all HoloLens apps are Universal apps, and all Universal apps can be made to be HoloLens apps". This is not a vaporware idea running unproven technology.
With Microsoft's expertise in spatial and sound technologies gained through the likes of Kinect, and with the HoloLens running what's basically Windows 10 with the power and simplicity of Universal Windows apps behind it, the HoloLens is limited more by what developers can dream up to do with the experience than by limitations of the software. Given the sheer novelty and awe-inspiring cool factor that the HoloLens provides, dreaming up cool stuff to do with the platform is not going to be a problem.
Getting our hands on the code (as much as I'm definitely not a developer) proved in a few short minutes that real developers are going to eat this up. While Microsoft has only shown some basic demonstrations so far, the HoloLens has the potential to explode with innovation once it hits the market, and oh by the way taking Windows 10 and Universal apps along with it for the ride.
The prototype devices we wore were light, well designed, and comfortable, although they do take some adjustment in order to gain a good experience. I found myself fiddling with the way the unit sat on my head, and sometimes lost sight of the "stage", but it all came quickly back with just about literally a "tweak of the cap". In fact, if you've ever worn a baseball cap, that's about what wearing a HoloLens felt like. Well balanced, light, and comfortable.
The hardware itself seemed to work well, too. We were able to set our own commands for voice manipulation of our spheres, and to drop it mine was "let go". Throughout the course of the demo, I tried "leggo", and "let......go", and HoloLens didn't miss a beat. Even though the room was noisy (with the sound of 50 journalists and developers all chanting their commands at once), HoloLens seemed finely tuned into listening to my commands, to watching my gestures, and to follow my gaze without any noticeable lag. Of course we were manipulating simple scenes, and not power hungry Halo renders, but still, I was impressed.
What needs work:
As I said, the field of view of the Holographic space was limited, seemingly less that what the engineering units from January displayed. I wanted a bigger playground, for sure.
When we changed the code to see the 3D grid that mapped the space HoloLens played in, that underlying grid itself was slow to refresh and not very finely defined. Cranking down the complexity of the grid would help to make things more responsive, and for this demo it's understandable that it wasn't fully up to speed. Complexity of the grid is a computing power problem, one that game developers and gamers have been tweaking since the first graphics engines ran the first video games, and I expect that the HoloLens that ships ("sometime in the Windows 10 timeframe", by the way, and yes we asked), will be well cranked up from the units we wore. Still, you can only wrap so much computing power around your head, and just like everything else there are limits and tradeoffs.
Not only is the HoloLens a very cool device, but it carries with it perhaps the most well defined developer platform for the things it sets out to do than any first in its generation device in history. The combination of engaged developers, Windows 10, Universal apps, and a mature graphics industry that offers up the likes of Unity, along with mobile hardware that is fine tuned for low power, high intensity computing, and HoloLens may be the perfect device at the perfect time.
Still, we're completely skipping over make-or-break details like price and availability, and even with the benefits of an app platform and graphics engines in place, there's still LOTS of work to do.
I can promise you one thing, though: as a reader of this site and by definition someone who lives on the bleeding edge of technology, you're going to want... no, you're going to NEED a HoloLens, at whatever the price and whatever the wait. You're going to line up for a HoloLens, but you'll have to wait behind me.