Hololens Hands-On: Sci-Fi Gadgetry Come to Life

By Tom Pritchard on at

Holograms are weird. That's my conclusion after giving Microsoft's augmented reality headset a go. It's such a bizarre feeling to put on a headset and up faced with virtual objects projected into real world environments. Even focusing your eyes on something that you know isn't there, rather than the wall behind it, takes a bit of getting used to.

Honestly, there's nothing quite like it outside the realms of science fiction.

Aside from the fact that you have to wear a headset, there are very few similarities between Hololens and the more widely-available virtual reality. VR is designed for a full-immersive experience, whereas the 'mixed reality' on the Hololens is designed to complement the real world. It's meant to visualise virtual objects in the real world, in a way that offers more depth and insight than a screen or book can offer.

The other key difference is that Hololens is completely unburdened by wires or external hardware. Each headset is basically a stand-alone mini computer, running a full version of Windows Holographic and functioning independently from other devices.

I spent the night before the demo messing around with the PlayStation VR headset, and found myself consistently annoyed by the giant wire coming out of the back and a heavy adaptor that kept falling out of my pocket. So to get some time with a wire-free headset was incredibly liberating. I could've stood in one place and spun around in circles like a child, with the only repercussion being extreme dizziness.

Couple the lack of wires with the fact that you can still see the environment around you, it means you have complete freedom of movement. That means there's no risk of unwillingly walking crotch-first into the corner of a table, or accidentally slapping your sofa.

Moving is actually encouraged for Hololens wearers as well. The headset has built-in environmental sensors that map the objects in the room, along with an immersive measurement unit (IMU) that measure the interactions between the environment and holograms in real time. In simpler terms, this means that each hologram is in a fixed position, and the wearer can move around to see everything from different angles and perspectives. One of the demo sessions that showcased this was a sample of curriculum from an anatomy course at Case Western University, and featured a 3D virtual holographic visualisation of the human body.

The hologram stayed in one static position in the centre of the room, and by moving around in the real world I was able to see it from any number of different angles. Similarly I was able to walk all the way up to the hologram and inspect it at close range. The resolution wasn't fantastic (not terrible, but certainly not even close to Full HD), but it was a lot more interesting that looking at a picture in a book. That's the idea really, by creating an anatomy course using Hololens, Case Western lets its students visualise what they're learning in a way that's actually relevant to a living human body.

The second demo, simply called 'Watch', was designed to showcase some of the Hololens's business capabilities - with particular emphasis on presentation. Microsoft created a fictional watch company, and showed off a holographic presentation of one of its products.

This demo briefed me on some of the things Hololens can do for presentations, including presenting heatmap data on where people are actually looking most of the time and letting the user alter things to take advantage of that. Also of note was the option of changing the presentation within Hololens (rather than having to import it from elsewhere), and a small menu hidden just out of sight fitted with a timer and annotations.

Obviously a presentation relies on everyone else having a headset, and then all those headsets networked together (which apparently isn't too difficult), but it was an interesting look at how we can get beyond Powerpoint and a projector.

When it comes to headsets and any form of 'X-reality', gaming tends to be the first thing on people's minds. Unfortunately it doesn't feel as though Hololens's gaming credentials are that strong, certainly not when it comes to action adventure-type games. While I wasn't able to go on with more casual titles like Minecraft, I did get to play a level of RoboRaid - a title where you have to zap robot baddies that rudely burst through your walls and shoot fireballs at you.

At times it felt vaguely similar to the VR shooter in Futurama, but it was let down by the narrow field of view. As I mentioned before you only get to see through a small letterbox window, and that doesn't really work for a game that features enemies coming at you from all angles. Hololens is still very much a developer/enterprise device for the time being, but don't go expecting to be able to play VR-like 360-degree games whenever the commercial version arrives.

As for the holograms, they all behave a bit differently based on what they've been programmed for. Some of them let you stick your head into them and see what's inside (like the Minecraft demos), others disappear as you get close to them (like Watch), and the rest let you walk straight through them (like the Case Western demo). It's all incredibly strange, since your brain seems to think they're real objects - even though you know damn well it's all just light projected in front of your eyes.

Look carefully and you can see slightly darker boxes on the lens. That's the only area holograms will appear

The problem with the holograms, however, is that the field of view is incredibly restricted. While the headset is relatively large, and the glass covering your eyes is about the same size as a pair of skiing goggles, the holograms only appear on small boxes on the inner-most lens. They're about 2 x 1 inches, and the end result is a box view that's about the size of a computer monitor. From a distance it's not as noticeable, but the closer you get to a hologram (especially a large one) the more gets cut out of view.

That's another reason why it's different to VR. In virtual reality (even the shitty cheap version), your vision is completely encompassed by the digital world displayed on screen. With hololens you had to keep your eyes pointed directly ahead, because looking anywhere else just looked like regular, boring old real life obscured by a bit of a headset.

The design of the Hololens headset is pretty interesting, and the headband itself is designed to be worn more like a crown than a typical headband. It's placed on top of your head and tightened at the back, much like the PS VR, while the front 'glasses' section hangs in place. This is all designed to redistribute the weight and stop the headset from digging into your nose. That said, that's provided on it being worn correctly, and the guy in charge of the demo admitted that it took him about an hour to perfect it the first time he put one on.

In the time I had with the headset, I couldn't get the positioning quite right and the front of the glass did end up digging into my nose. It's not quite as bad as the dirt-cheap plastic VR headset gathering dust in living room, but still annoying and somewhat painful. There is a nose piece to alleviate most of the problems, but the rep did say that Microsoft doesn't encourage people to wear it - since the company believes it would encourage people to wear Hololens with all the weight on their noses.

Apparently my problem wasn't helped by the fact I have longer hair, which is something worth bearing in mind whenever a headset is concerned. Fortunately the only real problem in that area was putting the headset on while simultaneously keeping my fringe out of my eyes. Despite the fact it can dig into your nose and cause some pain, Hololens isn't particularly heavy. It's not so light that you won't notice it's there, but not heavy enough that you'll walk out with some sort of mild neck injury

But something I always wondered, and I'm sure I'm not alone here, is whether or not the holograms have any side effects. Motion sickness 3D-like headaches, and that sort of thing. I didn't experience any of that, and I'm prone to those sorts of symptoms. So it's a good sign that Microsoft is trying to do things properly.

Microsoft doesn't have any plans to release a commercial Hololens anytime soon. It was made very clear that the device is beyond mere proof of concept, and is actively being used for far more than developer tinkering. While devices like Google Glass crashed and burned because they were little more than a novelty device, Microsoft is working with a number of partners (including NASA) to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to Hololens. It's certainly not rushing things, though, telling me that work on Hololens was a years-long process that has only just beginning.

The Development Edition of Hololens has been available in the US and Canada for a while, and now it's going international. It's available to pre-order in the UK and Ireland (amongst other places) right now, ready for shipping next month. It is well worth mentioning that this isn't intended for consumers, and the £2,719 price is going to put it out of the price range of ordinary people. You could buy a car for that much, and probably have enough left over to buy an Oculus Rift.