Microsoft HoloLens retro review: What made it great, and what a new HoloLens needs to succeed

Here's what made the original HoloLens magic, and what Microsoft could improve upon with the HoloLens 2.

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Little Conker may be the best showcase for the HoloLens’ talents. After scanning the area around you, the HoloLens and Conker uses your environment as a level for this platformer. It’s not especially hard, but it’s still pretty neat to turn your desk, chair, couch, and other furniture into a virtual playground where the demented squirrel can hop up and run around.. (You can save what it calls your "playspace" for future games, so that you don't need to re-scan it again.)

Microsoft HoloLens Young Conker stairs Mark Hachman / IDG

Asobo Studio made both Fragments and Young Conker, both of which show off the surface mapping capabilities to best effect. Here, Young Conker literally makes the stairs part of the platforming level.

Login issues meant that I didn’t have a chance to spend as much time with Fragments (video walkthrough, with spoilers), another mystery game that uses the HoloLens environment mapping to full effect. But Fragments actually has a plot, as the user navigates though “memories” to solve crimes. Some have called it a “hidden pixel” game, and that’s probably accurate. But it’s still one of the best experiences on the HoloLens.

Microsoft HoloLens Fragments Mark Hachman / IDG

While other HoloLens games are probably fine for kids, Fragments takes a darker tone by asking you to solve crimes. 

These apps—RoboRaid, Little Conker, and Fragments-- showed off the HoloLens augmented-reality and surface-mapping capabilities to best effect. Still, HoloLens never lived up to its entertainment possibilities. Microsoft showed off Minecraft several times as a public demonstration of HoloLens’ potential, but never delivered. (That’s not surprising for a device that ended up as a business tool.) I’ve always quietly hoped for a Dream Park-like experience mixing the real world and augmented reality, but that probably will never be. In all, though, you can’t help feeling that there was untapped potential.

A HoloLens 2 wish list

Is/was the HoloLens a failure? From a consumer perspective, yes. Even from its new perspective as a business device, Microsoft reportedly has sold only about 50,000 devices, according to Bloomberg. But that same story trumpets a $480 million contract Microsoft signed with the U.S. Army to develop HoloLens further for the battlefield, and that’s not chump change. Microsoft’s also hedging its bets by developing its Dynamics 365 Remote Assist tool—a fancy name for the original remote-assistance demo it showed off at the HoloLens launch in Redmond—as an Android app.

If I were creating a wish list for the HoloLens 2, it would be fairly straightforward:

A wider, higher-resolution field of view. Lag isn’t as critical here, but Microsoft needs more detailed, immersive holograms—especially if it plans to serve a business audience working with CAD projects, detailed wiring, and more. Microsoft at least had to consider a high-speed wireless link, such as the WiGig-powered connection HTC began talking about in 2017 and may have included in the Vive Cosmos. Whether such a link is built into a new HoloLens for additional computational horsepower is an intriguing possibility.

A lighter headset. A pound of headgear wasn’t that fatiguing for me, but lightening the load would accommodate more users for a longer length of time.

A UI that minimizes text input. You’ll never write a paper using the HoloLens, or probably put together a sales presentation, either. But steering the cursor across a HoloLens virtual keyboard is a miserable experience. Logging in using biometrics, or a secondary phone, and supporting automatic pairing technologies is a must. Dictation works somewhat acceptably.

Better integration with the cloud. Normally, photos synced on a Windows PC can be automatically uploaded to OneDrive. But to pull photos from the HoloLens, I had to manually download the OneDrive app, then copy photos from the device to a folder. the Photos app should have automatically synced every image I captured. It didn’t. 

More apps. Yeah, it’s a pipe dream. If Microsoft is aiming for the business market, expect to see a lot of PowerBI tools for visualizing data, rather than RoboRaid 2. But we can dream, right?

We know Microsoft has something up its sleeve for Barcelona. The fact that HoloLens inventor and Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman is scheduled to appear is a good sign that a next-gen HoloLens is in the offing. Here’s Microsoft’s teaser for its event, scheduled for Sunday, February 24:

Though PCWorld will be attending, we're not sure how much time (if any!) Microsoft will allow us with any new devices it shows off. HoloLens has generally remained behind Microsoft's curtains, and it looks like it might stay that way.

There's no shame in designing business-facing hardware. Products like the Surface tablets and laptops, after all, can be used by consumers and business users alike. Here's hoping that Microsoft learns its lessons from the past, though, and delivers a device that will wow us all over again.

Correction: Microsoft publicly debuted the HoloLens four years ago, not three. Updated at 11:25 AM on Feb. 22 with video.

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