We just tried the company’s new hologram gadget HoloLens.
It was a demonstration that was equal parts really awesome and really weird.
We were struck right away by how different this device is from Google Glass. HoloLens is about getting specific tasks done.
Upshot: the HoloLens is the future, but not one that’s coming any time soon.
Walking through a blueprint
We tried HoloLens at the Microsoft’s developer’s conference, Build, going on in San Francisco this week.
The 15-minute demo paired HoloLens with architectural modelling software SketchUp. (Irony not lost here. SketchUp was developed by Google and sold to Trimble Navigation in 2012.)
With the glasses on, we could take an object on our screens and drag it off screen where it became a 3D hologram. With a mouse, we could change the size, colour of the object — in this case the object was a model of a building.
In part two of the demo, we could go into this building, listen to and leave voice recorded notes for the architect.
Instead of looking at a paper blueprint, we saw where a new doorway was being designed and could look behind the walls to see where the plumbing and pipes were.
We controlled the device by moving our heads to direct our gaze, with voice commands and with a few simply hand gestures, namely the “air click.” The air click was exactly how it sounds, extend your ands and move your index finger, like clicking on a mouse.
HoloLens was untethered — no wires, although there was a Windows 10 PC in the room controlling it, operated by someone else.
Skype, HoloLens and Minecraft
Microsoft also showed us a live performance of two people using HoloLens with Skype and Minecraft. In this demo, one person fired up Skype on a Windows 10 PC and the other was on Skype with HoloLens.
Holograms could be sent from the PC over Skype to the other person who could blow the image up, shrink it, walk around it, even set it on a table and edit it.
When both people were satisfied with their Minecraft creation, they sent their object to a 3D printer and birthed it into the real world (a statue of the Seattle Space Needle).
Microsoft’s Minecraft purchase makes total sense now that we’ve seen Microsoft employees share a Minecraft model of the Space Needle back and forth on Skype.
Microsoft wasn’t just buying a game. It was buying a hologram-creation engine.
The weird part
This device is obviously a long way off from being a product and Microsoft was being extremely protective of it.
This demo was orchestrated. Security was tight.
They took our backpacks and phones away. We not allowed to take photos of anything, not even the on-stage live performance demo.
They handed us notepads and pens to record information.
Each person did the demo in a private room, guided by a person hired to do demos according to a script. On the plus side: it was a nice quiet way to check out the device.
Downside: This person wasn’t able to answer many questions about the device.
Friendly looking people in blue Microsoft shirts stood guard in front each door.
The effect was somewhere between theatre and prison.
You can’t just slip this thing on
Getting the headset on was surprisingly kind of an ordeal. Before we were allowed to go into the demo, a Microsoft employee had to take our interpupillary distance (IPD) — the distance between our eyes — to make sure the device would be calibrated correctly.
Microsoft will need to figure out how to scale that sort of service to thousands, then millions of users.
Maybe when the HoloLens actually launches, it will be a kind of high-touch approach where shoppers have to go into a Microsoft store or other retail outlet to get fitted.
Alternatively, online glasses retailer Warby Parker has a browser-based tool to measure IPD, so perhaps Microsoft will go that route.
As for the using the device: First off, it was awesome. Second off, it was awesome.
Air-tapping to select and open holograms in the air felt surprisingly natural, as did talking into the microphone. Using it in conjunction with a standard mouse/PC setup felt very natural, and it was extremely rewarding to see what we did on the computer reflected in the “real” world.
Leaving a holographic voice notes, which appeared like floating stickies in the air, was natural.
The field of view was the biggest disappointment.
The actual holograms are projected into a little box that hovers in front of your face, perhaps for computational reasons, because filling your entire line of sight with realistic, high-resolution holograms is just too much to ask of the little thing.
The upside is that you won’t walk into walls if the real world is always and forever on the edge of your vision.
The interface is obviously nowhere near finished.
A technician in the corner of the room performed all but the most basic HoloLens tasks on my behalf: What was supposed to be a big moment where a building changed from being made of brick to being made of glass in front of my eyes was undercut by the fact that I wasn’t the one who made the change happen.
A device for work, not just games
Microsoft smartly focused this demo around construction.
Where Google positioned Google Glass as an always-on, always-with-you Ultra Life Companion that was designed to be in your face and all your friends’ faces forever, HoloLens is very clearly aimed at Getting Things Done and Serious Business.
You put it on to do a thing, and you take it off when that thing is done.
If you’re an architect, you use it to work with models. If you’re a mechanic, you put it on to work with cars. You’re not going to wear it out in public.
And that means HoloLens as a Windows 10 device make a lot sense, a complement to, not a replacement for, the kinds of devices we already have.
It’s just not ready yet. And while Microsoft works to get it ready, someone else could swoop in and scoop up the commercial market.
If Microsoft doesn’t do this, somebody else will.
Still, it’s very nice to not feel sceptical about a new technology. The HoloLens, or something like it, is the future.