If you’re a developer, Microsoft wants you to see the HoloLens.
That’s the impression that I got walking out of the HoloLens developer demo on Wednesday morning, the day before developers would begin filing in and out of the same space to experience the mixed reality headset for themselves.
After a brief orientation and a measurement of how far away my pupils are from one another (yes, that’s a necessary step to wear the current iteration of the HoloLens), I was led to the first of three demos I’d have a chance to test.
HoloStudio, the first demo, was easily the most impressive of the bunch. After donning the HoloLens and tightening it up, I held my index finger out in front of me, pointed at the ceiling (as I’d been instructed to do), and “clicked” in midair to begin the demo. In an instant, a virtual toolbox materialized before me.
I was instructed to place the toolbox in a corner of the room, where it wouldn’t interfere with the projects I’d be working on. The first project, which I chose from a menu within the toolbox, was a small sign — something you’d hang on the wall in your home. I hovered over the project, air tapped and the sign popped out of the toolbox.
I was told to place the sign in the center of the room where it floated awkwardly, unattached to any surface. Once it was in place, I could walk around it and see it in a 3D space. But who wants a sign floating in their living room? In order to attach it to a surface, I’d need to scan the nearest wall. As I looked back and forth at one of the walls in the room, HoloLens began develop a greater understanding for the room I was in, and once the scan was complete, I could pick up the sign and paste it against the wall.
Heading back to the toolbox, I tapped on the second project and carried a small underwater scene into the room, complete with sand, coral, seashells and a fish trapped inside a pipe. After walking around to examine the scene, I was told to say “life-size” out loud, which I did. The small underwater vista immediately expanded to fill the entire room, and I was suddenly knee-deep in the sand. More than just being incredibly cool, I began to get a feel for how HoloStudio could change the way that architects and designers interact with one another when discussing a project that would eventually make its way into the real world.
After shrinking the scene back to a manageable size, I was able to free the fish by saying “delete” while hovering over the bars at the front of the pipe, then “moved” the fish out into the open water. From there, I “copied” the object until the whole room was filled with blue fish, which I could further manipulate through voice commands such as “rotate” and “resize.”
The final project was especially timely, as I was able to repaint an X-Wing, which was more of an introduction to the exporting process than anything. Once you’ve finished a project, you can export it to OneDrive, throw it into Sketchfab or even 3D print it right away. I didn’t expect to enjoy HoloStudio as much as I did, but now it’s all I can think about.
The second demo was a bit of a departure, but one that the HoloLens is far better equipped for than its virtual reality counterparts. After once again strapping in to the developer unit, I was told to stand up and watch the table in front of me. A watch appeared, and a voice began speaking to me from the unit, describing the watch.
At first, I was a bit confused as to the point of this demo. Yes, the 3D watch sitting on the table was neat-looking, but I’d honestly rather hold a non-virtual watch in my hand before I put down money for it. Then the watch grew several times its original size and exploded outward, showing off the internal design and the individual pieces contained within.
Ah, now I got it.
There were small yellow dots at various points in the expanded view — points of interest which I could look at to get more information about the watch. The voice in my head then explained that at any time, I could open up an edit menu and add a point or change a “slide” in the 3D presentation based on feedback from viewers. There was even a heat map which showed where on the watch customers were gazing for the longest amount of time.
This example of holographic storytelling didn’t bowl me over like HoloStudio, but providing the final HoloLens hardware is less unwieldy than the developer edition, it could be a fun way to get consumers engaged in a product they might otherwise pass up simply because they don’t know enough about it.
The last demo of the morning was the one I was most excited for: Project X-Ray. Although the HoloLens is not primarily a gaming device like PlayStation VR or Oculus Rift, mixed reality gaming is certainly as aspect of the product.
For the first time, I was handed both a HoloLens headset and an Xbox One controller. My gaze would serve as the reticle, but I’d need to press the right trigger on the controller to shoot the robots which would soon begin streaming out of the walls.
Utilizing the surround sound of the headset, I was able to whip around to find the first incursion within the room. A small metal tube crashed through the wall and small robotic scorpions began crawling out, which I quickly dispatched before giving them a chance to shoot at me. It’s worth noting that the bullets exist in a 3D plane, so once the enemy force grew in size, I’d have to actually, physically dodge out of the way in order to avoid getting shot.
The limited size of the viewing window killed some of the immersion, but there were several moments throughout the 5-10 minute demo where everything clicked and I really felt like I was fighting for my life in a small room in New York City as alien robots attempted to kill me.
Speaking with a representative from Microsoft, I got a sense that we aren’t going to be picking up the consumer model of the HoloLens off of store shelves any time soon. Microsoft is completely focused on getting the device into the hands of developers in order to ensure that there is a large app ecosystem long before an official release.
That said, the HoloLens is going to serve a very different market than the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR. Mixed reality is an obvious tool for retailers and businesses, but it’s going to take dozens of clever developers to find a way to make HoloLens a consumer product as well. In the meantime, I can’t wait to find an excuse to mess with one again.