Developing with HoloLens: Decent hardware chases Microsoft's lofty augmented reality ideal

Microsoft HoloLens
Credit: Mark Hachman

If you accept that Microsoft’s HoloLens is a tool, you’ll be delighted. But be wary of its followers, who seem to believe that it shall lead Microsoft to the promised land.

There’s a fine line to walk here, for HoloLens holograms truly are a transformative experience. Interacting with virtual objects an arms length away, seemingly hovering in space, is a memory that you will not easily forget. But now that I’ve tried out HoloLens not once, but twice, I can be a bit more critical.

Microsoft supposedly has manufactured hundreds of HoloLenses, but few (none?) have been seeded to developers. As it did in January, Microsoft forbade reporters from taking pictures or recording video of the HoloLens in use, save for a single unit behind glass. And when we did get a chance to try out the HoloLens, a Microsoft emcee heralded its coming with a shout—“Bring in the hardware!”—while dozens of Microsoft employees rhythmically clapped along to loud house music. Whose playbook do you think they took that from?

Microsoft HoloLens Mark Hachman

With that said—and it must be said—HoloLens represents what Microsoft is aspiring to do: reinvent a market where “innovation” equates to reformatting apps for larger and smaller sheets of glass. As Microsoft executives are quick to note, HoloLens does away with the glass altogether, yet uses a familiar programming model that can be used to repurpose existing “universal” Windows apps for the new environment.

I had a chance to try out HoloLens from the perspective of a developer, led through a mock 90-minute session where I was “taught” how to code a Windows Holographic application, as well as a chance to try it out using the latest HoloLens hardware.

Microsoft’s crown of dreams

When we were given a chance to experience HoloLens in January, the hardware was Borg-like: tethered via cables, HoloLens was more like a scuba mask attached to a bicycle helmet. (In both cases, our eyes were measured to determine our inter-pupillary distance, to ensure that we would see the projected holograms clearly.) What Microsoft showed off under glass this week is the real deal: wireless, relatively comfortable, and much more polished.

The new HoloLens consists of two sturdy, plastic frames. An inner loop rests over your skull, connected to an outer frame that holds the hardware itself. At a guess, I’d say the hardware itself weighs about a pound or a little more, not uncomfortable but certainly noticeable. On either side, on top of the frame, are two sets of buttons; the left buttons control the brightness of the holograms, while the right control the volume of the sounds pumped through the headset.

Build HoloLens11

The objects we saw using the HoloLens were far less complex than this dinosaur bone.

The HoloLens glass droops over your eyes, and was more than a little difficult to get aligned correctly—more so than the prototype hardware shown in January, which was adjusted by trained Microsoft employees. 

Part of the difficulty lies with the field of view, which is very roughly equivalent to what you might see on your phone if it were a few inches in front of your eyes. There’s a substantial portion of your field of vision that can’t pick up the holograms, at least with the new hardware; I would swear that the prototype offered a wider field of view, but I certainly could be wrong. (One suggestion might be to establish a "glow" at the periphery of the screen to indicate a hologram is nearby, and as an incentive to turn and find it.)

When it counted, the HoloLens worked well. The holograms were bright and colorful, with a resolution definitely lower than HD quality, but not too bad. And the ability for the HoloLens hardware to see and “scan in” real-world objects into virtual surfaces worked marvelously. With the HoloLens on, holograms take precedence, so you can barely see your hand or arm if a hologram is behind it. The real world is just a ghost haunting Microsoft’s virtual space.

microsoft hololens demo motorcycle Microsoft

With the Microsoft's HoloLens headset, users can view virtual 3D images within the everyday real world.

Look, Ma, I can code

Microsoft transformed a nearby hotel into a professionally designed “Holographic Academy,” complete with workstations and chairs. Each pair of reporters was assigned a “mentor” to walk us through what Microsoft called the “Express Edition” of what was normally a four-hour session. Ours, “David” (he declined to give his last name), sat us down in front of a pair of workstations.

David, bless him, couldn’t answer whether the HoloLenses were wirelessly connected—we downloaded the apps to the HoloLens via a USB cable—or how much memory was within them. “I just don’t know,” he said with a warm smile.

In all fairness, however, David was excellent, and all of the employees present seemed enthusiastic, well-trained, and eager to please.

The message was simple: It’s easy to code for the HoloLens, with entire features and properties that can be adjusted using single lines of code. Microsoft asked us to work within the Unity framework, exporting the project into Visual Studio to be compiled and downloaded via a USB cable into the HoloLens. At each stage we enabled more features: gaze input, spatial sound, physics, and finally the ability to move the “stage” where the holograms took place to whatever real-world surface we wanted to.

The “app,” as it were, was simple: A pair of small spheres—one appearing to be crumpled-up newspaper, the other a more abstract shape—hovered above a paper airplane leaning on the table, plus another surface. We learned we could tap the spheres to enable them to fall, and they would “roll” down to a giant virtual notepad that served as the stage for the digital objects. 

One of the goals was to show off how virtual objects could be interacted with: via a small circular cursor that would appear on an object you were looking directly at, by an oral command, or by a click. In Windows Holographic, you “click” by holding your palm out, then lowering your index finger to your palm. The trick is that the camera has to “see” your finger doing this, so you have to remind yourself to keep your hands in “view,” as it were.

hololensrobot 100582237 large

I would have loved to have been able to play with a control interface like this. But alas, it was not to be.

Not everything went smoothly. Some code didn’t seem to work correctly the first time, and had to be recompiled and re-loaded. There was even some garbage-in, garbage-out: to reset the scene, we could pick our own command word; I chose “Abracadabra,” but mistyped and forgot the first “R”. Not surprisingly, it worked once the error had been corrected. But another command, “Bombs away,” barely worked once.

We eventually learned how to drag virtual objects around the room, rolling virtual balls off various real-world objects like tables and chairs that the HoloLens mapped as virtual surfaces. The grand finale, however, made it all worthwhile: when the balls hit the floor, they exploded—and revealed a Minecraft-like underworld “beneath” the floor. The gathered employees had a good laugh at the reporters who crawled around the floor hoping for a better view.

“You are now a Windows Holographic developer,” were all told enthusiastically, to more applause. 

microsoft windows holographic 3d minecraft Image: Susie Ochs

Microsoft Windows Holographic and the HoloLens headset will enable 3D gaming, like this demo of Minecraft played on an entire living room floor. 

The best is yet to come

Microsoft revealed Thursday that Windows 10 devices, including HoloLens, will be rolled out over a staggered timeline. HoloLens and the Surface Hub require new hardware, implying that they’ll launch at the back of the pack.

Still, we can imagine that a HoloLens launch might occur, say, in January. That’s just over seven months away. Press-room guesses on its price all start at four figures, with Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds believing that they’ll be priced at $2,000 initially. (Eventually, I believe, it will be about the price of an Xbox One, or $300 or so, but that’s a couple of years away.)

Essentially, HoloLens is developer hardware, much like the Chromebook Pixel is to the Chromebook—if other HoloLenses existed, of course. And while this may exist in a few specialized applications—architecture, say, or medicine—I think it’s a stretch to believe that we’ll be toting around Microsoft’s space helmet anytime soon. Why? Too many unanswered questions, for one.

No one knows the HoloLens's battery life. No one’s sure of its performance, how many apps can or will be written to it, and how many it can run at one time. On the control console, there was an icon marked “cool” with a temperature gauge next to it. (Hmmm.) The HoloLens’s field of view makes me wonder that even if you could haul a virtual video window with you around the house, whether you’d actually want to.

I’m sorry. I know, you haven’t seen HoloLens for yourself. And yes, it’s a marvelous, even magical, piece of technology. But I don’t see HoloLens redefining the way we live as much as a DVR, smartphone, or self-driving car. Right now, I see HoloLens as a tool—one that's indispensable for some applications, but not quite the Holy Grail that Microsoft’s HoloLens team wishes it could be.

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