Quick Review: Early Experiences of HoloLens

Microsoft HoloLens

I have been using augmented reality headsets since about 2006 and whenever another one comes out I am excited and then later become disappointed. As was the case with the Epson BT-200 and Google Glass (not real augmented reality) both of which I have either owned or used. In most cases these devices either failed in terms of decent quality graphics, had a bad display (so any lighting washed out what was on display) or simply had no decent apps which showed off what you could do. Granted the Epson is a device from a few years ago but it could have been so much better, but sadly it wasn’t. So it was with a similar mindset that I tried HoloLens when we received it at work in December 2016.  Since then we have demonstrated it to many members of the public (using the supplied game) and also built some early software on it for a large European project. So it is fair to say we have spent some time with it. With this in mind I have decided to put together a very quick list of good, bad and ugly points – these will no doubt grow with time. Sorry in advance to Epson, I know you have brought out better equipment but for now we only compared the HoloLens against your rather aging BT-200. I will however happily review your new augmented reality platforms if you send me some to try!

Ok, a clearly faked image but the quality of the display is impressive. Image creative commons: Microsoft.

The good

  • By far the best display I have seen on a “consumer” and publicly available AR system. The colours remain vivid even under light. See the faked image above, which perhaps a bit over the top is not as far from reality as it may seem.
  • Gesture recognition, for example shooting the robots by pinching your fingers in the supplied game works almost perfectly – but you do need to get used to where to hold your hand.
  • It is easy to use and works out of the box with almost no problem.
  • Developing software in Unity is not difficult.
  • Calibrating room layouts so that you can position and interact with content works very well and is extremely easy; by far the best I can come across so far.
  • Audio is supplied through some built-in speakers which work very well and it is certainly better than having to use headphones – which would also block out the surrounding environment.
  • Not very expensive for what you get! It is about €3500 so not too cheap either.
  • Beats waving a phone or tablet around in order to experience augmented reality.

The Bad

  • The headset is a bit bulky, but it is early days! The Epson is smaller and lighter but worse in all other respects. That said it is not a major issue.
  • Battery life can be a bit limiting, we got about 90 minutes to 2 hours out of it.
  • Apparently there is a limit of 5 functioning headsets in any single space due to the underlying technologies used.
  • We are told it is not ideal for outdoor usage, but as yet we have not tested this point.
  • There are cheaper augmented reality options, but the view from the public when we let them try both was “no way Epson!”. HoloLens wins outright here even if it is far more expensive, sorry Epson BT-200. The public simply loved HoloLens.
  • Unavoidable really but when you calibrate the device it is for you! While you can use the same calibration etc with other people it will not work as well. This is designed and supplied as a highly personal and monogamous piece of equipment. That said it works well enough across different people when shared if everyone is of a similar height. I need to investigate this issue more, so more details later.

The Ugly

  • The field of view is simply too small for many tasks. For basic games where it does not matter it is perfectly ok but for the specific work we undertake it is not ideal. The result is that the area in which you can see augmentations is too small, which is not so good really if peripheral vision is an important part of your experiences or where really immersive experiences are involved.

This is not a headset it’s part of an eco-system

Microsoft is no namby-pamby start-up, in reality while you may buy HoloLens as it is cool,  it does form part of Microsoft’s eco-system. This means over time I expect the whole system to be part of how you use your everyday applications, smart home devices (read Internet of Things) and in general interact with the world around you. Microsoft has a team of very talented research and development engineers so it is only a matter of time before they (hopefully) come out with some really killer applications for HoloLens!

Summary

Does the above review seem negative? Well it shouldn’t this is an excellent piece of kit and while there are some limitations Microsoft has done an excellent job. I would say it is by far their best product in years and I don’t mean that as in everything else they did was bad. Rather this is just really cool! Even some of my more cynical colleagues were blown away by it!

About Rod McCall

Rod McCall is a researcher in the field of human-computer interaction in areas such as augmented reality, mobile gaming in-car systems and virtual environments. He has a passing interest in economics after not being entirely convinced by the rubbish presented as fact during lectures on that particular subject while at uni.
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