Hands-on with the Microsoft HoloLens

Hands-on with the Microsoft HoloLens
In its demo video, Microsoft touted the HoloLens as a tool to teach anatomy to medical students without requiring a human cadaver.

Ever since Facebook spent US$2 billion (S$2.66 billion) last year to buy the virtual reality pioneer Oculus, this technology has hardly been out of the news.

While Oculus still leads the field, HTC, Samsung and Sony have all announced their own virtual reality headsets.

Then in January, came Microsoft from out of left field, with the HoloLens.

Unlike virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, which create an immersive virtual world for the user, the Microsoft HoloLens is about augmenting reality with holograms. It mixes 3-D imagery with the real world.

Microsoft's own videos on the technology look amazing, with the user interacting with holograms in interesting ways.

During the keynote presentation at its recent Build developer conference, Microsoft demonstrated using the HoloLens as a tool to teach anatomy to medical students without requiring a human cadaver.

But what does it feel like to use the HoloLens?

I got to experience it for myself at Build. Before the demo started, we were herded into a room and briefed on interacting with the HoloLens.

Basically, there are three forms of interaction with the HoloLens:

By your gaze: It knows what I am looking at, presumably, by tracking my head movements;

By "air taps": Extend a hand in front of you and lift a finger to "tap" the air; and

By voice: It appears to accept voice input, although I did not get to control the device with my voice during the hands-on session.

The device has to be calibrated for each user. A Microsoft employee first had to use an instrument to measure the distance between the centres of my pupils, as known as interpupillary distance.

This could be an issue if (or when) the HoloLens is sold to consumers.

Remarkably polished, the device is a stand-alone wireless computer running on Windows 10. It comes with its own battery. It is not a problem if the wearer, like me, uses prescription glasses, as the visor does not rest on the nose but is held up by an adjustable headband. During my scant 15 minutes with it, it did not feel heavy.

For the hands-on, which was held in a customised hotel room, this was the scenario: I was an architect designing a new building using a 3-D modelling tool called SketchUp.

Architects often use physical models to better visualise buildings in their surroundings. But such models are expensive and take time to build.

Enter Microsoft HoloLens.

It creates a hologram of the building from the SketchUp drawing. Using a virtual mouse, I could adjust the height of the building, as if on a regular computer. But unlike the 2-D image on a display, I could see it all in 3-D as a hologram.

That was not all. Once I finalised the design, the HoloLens showed me how it would look - it created a view of it from the street, in a holograph.

Next, I was told that a foundation pillar in this building was blocking a proposed doorway.

But I did not have to consult a blueprint. Instead, a holographic avatar showed me how the pillar was in the way.

I could also see in 3-D, the pipes and plumbing in the wall. By air tapping with my finger, I left a voice message embedded in a hologram - like a holographic Post-it note - to tell a contractor to change the layout so that the pillar would not be blocking the doorway.

And that was it.

The hands-on experience was too short and too scripted. Microsoft's aim may have been to avoid putting the demo at risk from untried and unexpected handling by novices, but it was just too neat.

More importantly, it was probably impossible for the HoloLens to live up to the expectations generated by Microsoft's own video demos, which looked incredible.

In reality, the holograms were much smaller than the ones shown in the video demos. They were restricted to a small box in the middle of the glasses so that they appeared to hover in front of me.

Because the field of view was so small, the hologram was truncated. I had to keep moving my head to make out the complete hologram. It felt a bit like looking at an object close by with binoculars.

While the video demos showed multiple holograms all around a room, you actually see only a single hologram, or in some cases, merely a small part of it. In other words, the videos do a disservice to the device by hyping up the technology.

There is no doubt that this technology has amazing potential. But, for now, it feels more like an enhanced version of the augmented reality apps found on smartphones.

To be fair, the holograms looked good, when I could see them. If only they were visible outside that small box. But at no point did I feel giddy or nauseous, as has happened with other virtual reality headsets.

Microsoft has said nothing about the computing hardware of the device, so it is not clear if the view is limited only because the hardware is underpowered.

But it is still early days for this technology. Microsoft has not announced when the HoloLens will be ready, though I am sure that developers will be keen to create useful apps for it.

This article was first published on May 6, 2015.
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