The worst thing about Microsoft HoloLens is still its field of view
Two years ago at its Build developer conference, Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, a futuristic holographic headset it said would usher in future of computing: A “mixed reality” where the virtual blurs into the real world.
HoloLens looked extremely promising, except for one thing: Its narrow field of view meant using it wasn’t anything close to the expansive and immersive experiences portrayed by its on-stage demos.
Fast forward to Build 2018, and the same problem continues to hold back the headset as well as Microsoft’s entire mixed-reality platform.
Build is a get-together for developers to learn about all the new Microsoft tools and technologies that’ll supposedly shape the future. It’s not a very consumer-facing conference.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for end users. After all, the things developers make directly affect users, whether they’re working on a factory line, in an office, in a classroom, or wherever.
HoloLens, however, is not a future we should get too excited about until Microsoft upgrades the headset hardware.
It’s been about a year since I last tried any HoloLens experience, but at this year’s Build Microsoft reinvigorated enthusiasm for it with two new applications. One is Microsoft Remote Assist, an app that lets HoloLens users collaborate in real-time from remote locations via photos, videos, annotations, and more. The other app is Microsoft Layout, which lets HoloLens users edit and create room layouts right in their real physical spaces.
I didn’t get a chance to try out either of these apps at Build (they’re coming on May 22), but there were several other new HoloLens experiences that gave me a good picture of the state of the headset and mixed reality.
DataMesh had a demo of Charlie, its holographic AI financial adviser. The rather primitive cyborg-like adviser helped calculate the amount of investment I’d need to pay off an Ivy League college tuition for my kid. I told Charlie how much money I had and it crunched all the numbers, summarizing what my monthly payments would need to be, how much interest I’d need to fork over, and how long it’d take to pay it all off.
As I walked around the small booth and turned my head left and right, up and down, I couldn’t help but notice how un-immersive the augmented reality graphs were. They weren’t easily visible and kept getting cut off as I moved my head because of the HoloLen’s small field of view.
Don’t get me wrong — I suck at calculations, so it sure was convenient to have an AI do all the math for me — but how the heck is this any more practical than just seeing the same data generated on a screen? The augmented reality added virtually nothing to the experience, other than maybe feeling like I was talking to a financial advisor instead of a bot (even though it ironically looked like bot).
HoloLens’ weakness was even more apparent in another app by Taqtile. In this MR experience, I was tasked with constructing a circuit board with the aid of its augmented reality instructions.
Through HoloLens, I could pull up instruction sets arranged as windows, view photo diagrams, take notes, and watch a video tutorial that’d show me where to connect a component on the board. There were even overlays directly on top of the circuit board showing me what each piece was.
It’s pretty neat, but my suspension of disbelief was ruined whenever I had to dramatically turn my head over to the right of to see the video tutorial. I still very much realized I was simply looking through a window in front of me and merely peering inside of it.
Same thing for CAE, a healthcare simulation training experience, that lets nurses and doctors explore the human anatomy in 3D.
It’s mind-blowing seeing the different parts of the body split into layers above a rubber torso on top of a table, and it’s even more impressive that to use hand gestures to enlarge and spin certain organs around — even though there’s still some issues when it comes to response time. But it all really fell apart when my view of the human anatomy was obscured by the headset’s limitations.
Clarity is a key part of tricking your mind into believing the virtual objects in front of you are really there even when they’re not.
I recently tested the HTC Vive Pro and the Oculus Go, two VR headsets with sharper images than the headsets that came before them, and it was so easy to forget I had escaped into a virtual world for extended periods of time because everything looked more realistic. VR worlds haven’t quite reached the uncanny valley, but they’re inching eerily closer to it.
HoloLens — the current version at least — isn’t remotely close and that’s a problem because it makes it more difficult to even get excited about it. Unless you need your hands for something else, you might as well just stick with phone-based AR. You’re still looking through a window anyway.
Microsoft has patents that suggest it’s figured out how to double HoloLens’ field of view, but it’s unclear if that’ll happen anytime soon. Two years after HoloLens’ introduction and the FOV is still a limitation that gimps the headset from making more progress.
New hardware succeeds when there’s a healthy library of apps for available. In the case of HoloLens, there aren’t many to mess with — only a few hundred, most of which appear to be demos and not full-featured experiences.
HoloLens reminds me of the original iPhone: forward-facing, but technologically behind in some core areas. The difference is Apple quickly iterated the iPhone to outclass any challengers and Microsoft’s kinda resting on its laurels with HoloLens.
A better comparison for HoloLens might be the now-dead Kinect. The motion-tracking camera captivated the world, quickly becoming the fastest-selling consumer device in 2011, but Microsoft waited another two years to bring a more powerful version to market. By then, the world had moved on.
I fear HoloLens will face the same fate if Microsoft doesn’t give it the update it so desperately needs.