It’s taken a while but I finally had my first hands on look at Microsoft HoloLens last night. The demonstration was given as part of the London Unity Usergroup (LUUG) meetup a talk by Jerome Maurey-Delaunay of Neutral Digital about their initial experiences of building demos for the device with Unity. Neutral are a design and software consultancy who have a portfolio of projects including work with cultural institutions such as the Tate and V&A, engineering and aviation firms like Airbus, and architectural firms such as Zaha Hadid architects who they are currently assisting to develop Virtual Reality visualisation workflows.
During the break following the presentation I had may first chance to try the device out for myself. One of the great features of HoloLens is that it incorporates video capture straight out of the box. Although clips weren’t taken on the night these videos from the Neutral Digital twitter stream provide a good indication of my experience when I tested it:
— Neutral Digital (@neutraldigital) 12 August 2016
After using VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive the first thing you notice about the HoloLens is how unencumbered you feel. Where VR headsets enclose the user’s face to block out ambient light and heighten immersion in a virtual environment, the HoloLens is open affording the user unhindered awareness of their surrounding [augmented] environment over which the virtual objects or ‘holograms’ are projected. The second thing you notice is that the HoloLens runs without a tether. Once applications have been transferred to the device it can be unplugged leaving the user free to move about without worrying about tripping up or garroting themselves.
Being able to see my surroundings also meant that I could easily talk face to face with Jerome and see the gestures he wanted me to perform in order operate the device and manipulate the virtual objects it projected. Tapping forefinger and thumb visualised the otherwise invisible virtual mesh that the HoloLens draws as a reference to anchor holograms to the users environment. A projected aircraft could then be walked around and visualised from any angle. Alternatively holding forefinger and thumb while moving my hand would rotate the object in that direction instead.
— Neutral Digital (@neutraldigital) 10 August 2016
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these demos. The ability of HoloLens to project animated and interactive Holograms that feel anchored to the user’s environment is impressive. I found the headset comfortable and appreciated being able to see my surroundings and interact easily with the people around me. At the same time I wouldn’t say that I felt immersed in the experience in the sense discussed with reference to virtual reality. The ability to interact through natural gestures helped involve my attention in the virtual objects I was seeing, but the actual field of view available for projection is not as wide as the video captures from the device might suggest.
As it stands I wouldn’t mistake Microsoft’s holograms for ‘real’ objects, but then I’m not convinced that this is what we should be aiming for with AR. While one of the prime virtues of virtual reality technologies like Oculus and Vive is their ability to provide a sense of ‘being there’, I see the strength of augmented reality technologies elsewhere in their potential for visualising complex information at the point of engagement, decision or action.