We’re not in the future yet, but you can see it from here.
Last week I had the opportunity to try out HoloLens — Microsoft’s futuristic head-mounted computer.
It’s pretty wild. Not wild in the woah-this-game’s-graphics-are-so-realistic-wild sense, or a this-computer-is-lightning-fast-and-responsive-wild.
I mean jesus-christ-there’s-robotic-scorpions-coming-out-of-the-goddamn-walls-wild.
Yes, there are obvious limitations and flaws, and some boring caveats.
But to put it plainly, it was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced first-hand before.
It’s the real world — enhanced.
HoloLens maps out the (real) world and inserts virtual, interactive objects into it. In the demos I tried, that meant the magnified, editable innards of a luxury watch, sitting on a desk in a mock-showroom display. A Skype chat app hanging like a picture beside me as I tried to fix a (real world) lightbulb, with a Microsoft employee drawing instructions directly onto my vision. A two-foot pulsating cross-section of a human heart floating in the middle of the room. Robots breaking out of walls and shooting rockets that I had to leap and duck around like a loon to avoid.
In short: It’s augmented reality (AR) — just don’t call it that. Microsoft prefers the term mixed reality.
“Mixed reality for us really connotes that real kind of volumetric [shape] … it’s about the fact it is a 3D object that’s in your environment, and it’s mixing your real world with that object,” explained Leila Martine, Microsoft UK’s director of new devices. “It connotates as a very different impression it leaves you with than just augmenting the real world … augmenting is not necessarily that those two things are coexisting in reality.”
Whatever your preferred nomenclature, it’s a seriously novel experience. And while virtual reality (VR) may have the potential to be more immediately breathtaking and fun, the potential for AR to slot itself into your daily life is near-endless.
… But it’s not a consumer product.
If this has you excited about augmented reality gaming and hanging virtual pictures in your home — sorry.
As Martine emphasised to me again and again (and again and again) the current HoloLens is not a consumer device. It’s aimed squarely at businesses and creative industries, with Microsoft touting NASA, Volvo, Case Western medical school, and architectural studio Trimble as key organisations currently utilising the tech.
Think radically enhanced car showroom demos, and medical tuition involving 3D life-size manipulable organs, rather than home entertainment.
(Plus, it costs an eye-watering £2,719/$3,000, going up to £4,529/$5,000 for the “Commercial” edition. It’s available in the US now, and starts shipping in the UK at the end of November.)
And it has its limitations. Most obviously, the field-of-view is somewhat narrow, so the augmentations (sorry, holograms) don’t fill all of your vision. There might be one on the desk in front of you, but if you’re not looking down, you’re not going to see it. That alone would severely restrict any potential consumer-level uses — although not the more business-focused uses that Microsoft is aiming at.
Augmented reality may one day be as common as “eating three meals a day”
But I found myself looking past any hardware shortcomings, because of what HoloLens represents. Augmented reality, like its sister technology virtual reality, is seriously buzzy right now. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook speaks highly bullishly about the tech, claiming that in the future it will be as important and common-place as “eating three meals a day” — all-but confirmation that Apple is quietly working on developing the tech.
But right now, there’s nothing else out there, in commercial production, like Microsoft’s HoloLens. Secretive multi-billion-dollar startup Magic Leap has yet to launch a product. The closest Google has is Tango, an AR platform that runs off smartphones rather than a headset. Apple is just making positive noises.
No, the HoloLens isn’t going to change the lives of ordinary people. And although Microsoft is ahead of the pack now, there’s no guarantee that it will be the company that first successfully brings augmented reality products to the masses. (Microsoft declined to discuss its future plans or sales figures.)
But consumer-level AR is coming — and having tried HoloLens, I expect it to be one of the most radical shifts in how we interact with computers in my lifetime.
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