SAN FRANCISCO — I blasted a hole in the floor of the Intercontinental Hotel. But honestly, it was all Microsoft's fault.
I was just trying to use HoloLens to make a virtual paper ball tumble to the floor with a flick of my finger. And I was getting the hang of it, too, when my Microsoft-supplied instructor suggested taking things to the next level: "Adjust the program to put a target on the floor," he said, "and see what happens."
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What happened was an explosion the instant my paper ball hit the target, with a chunk of the fifth floor of the hotel crumbling away. But instead of staring down at startled hotel guests glaring up at me, what I saw was a virtual world, filled with white clouds; green, textured hills; and red origamilike birds that swooped into view.
That was my first exposure to HoloLens, the virtual-reality headset that Microsoft sees as a way to introduce the world to an entirely new class of apps. At the company's Build conference — which was already packed with information on Windows 10, the upcoming Microsoft Edge browser and cross-platform app development — HoloLens still stole the show, with Microsoft giving reporters a guided tour of what goes into creating the holographic experiences it hopes to deliver with its headset.
This certainly wasn't the first time Microsoft has offered a close-up look at HoloLens. The company gave reporters some hands-on time when it first unveiled the device back in January, with a series of demos aimed at showcasing the holographic headset's capabilities. But those demos involved a clunky prototype. And while Microsoft described the headset we used in this week's demonstration as "early-development hardware," it looked like the same device worn on stage during the April 29 Build keynote. We also got a glimpse at some of the software that will help create the holograms you'll observe with your HoloLens.
HoloLens is a plastic headset that fits snugly — and, to my surprise, comfortably for the most part — on your head. The Microsoft representative at the demo yesterday (April 30) kept comparing the device to a baseball cap, though it might be more apt to compare it to the replica batting helmets some baseball teams hand out on souvenir days at the ballpark. There's a plastic inner band on the inside of the HoloLens, which you can loosen or tighten to fit the headset on your noggin.
The outer plastic ring encircling your head is largely inflexible — in fact, Microsoft warned us that if we pulled the outer shell apart, our journey into the world of holograms would end abruptly. There's a nose bridge on the HoloLens, but it seems to be there just to provide a general idea of how to line up the device, rather than to act as a resting place for your headset.
A see-through visor on the front of the HoloLens lets you view real-world objects and people, but it also superimposes the 3D holograms you can observe and interact with. Cameras and sensors on the HoloLens detect where you're looking and adjust the image accordingly. Walk closer to a holographic image, and it will grow larger; circle around it, and you'll see it from a different angle.
The device uses spatial sound, so you don't have to plug in any headphones; instead, you just hear the audio as you would any ambient noise. As you get closer to the hologram, the noise associated with the image gets louder, just as it would in the physical world. (That audio isn't undetectable to the outside world. At one point, I took off my HoloLens but forgot to stop the program I was testing. I could still hear the faint sounds echoing from the device's floating speakers.)
I didn't find the HoloLens uncomfortable to wear, but never for a moment did I forget that I was wearing a headset. Our demo required us to take off the device and put it back on quite a bit, which meant adjusting that inner band each time I donned the HoloLens. Figuring out the best fit is crucial, as my biggest complaint with the HoloLens is that if you don't have it situated ideally on your face, you end up cutting off part of the hologram. I became more comfortable putting the device on as the demo continued, but there were a few times when I had to tilt my head in an awkward position to get a full field of view.
Our 90-minute session with the HoloLens — an expedited version of the 4-hour hands-on session Microsoft was offering developers during Build — didn't offer some of the more eye-catching demos Microsoft had included during HoloLens' unveiling party in January. All we did was play around with a pair of hovering virtual balls made out of paper. If that doesn't sound as impressive as a Minecraft world overlaid on a kitchen table or a Skype video call offering a virtual demo, it did provide a solid introduction to the main ways you'll control HoloLens — with your gaze, simple gestures and even your voice.
It takes some getting used to, though. I would flick my finger through the air in a vain attempt to send my virtual paper ball toppling toward the ground, only to have it hang there, taunting me, no matter how forcefully I flailed. (I've never been more grateful that Microsoft banned cameras from this demo, as nobody needs to see me clumsily slapping the air to direct a ball that really isn't there.)
After a couple of false starts, I realized the problem was that I wasn't focusing my gaze directly onto the virtual object I was hoping to manipulate. Adjusting my gaze fixed the problem, and I was soon able to use both gestures and the sound of my voice to send both paper spheres hurtling toward the floor.
I also learned that HoloLens doesn't require elaborate gestures, but just a downward flick of your index finger. I was putting my whole wrist into gestures, until a Microsoft rep helpfully corrected me — an approach I'll blame on far too much time with the Nintendo Wii.
As simple as the virtual demo was, I still saw plenty to like about HoloLens. I could distinctly hear the crinkling of paper as the virtual ball rolled around the floor of the demo room. And thanks to HoloLens' support for spatial mapping, the virtual balls could roll just about anywhere in the room, including on top of real-world objects like a coffee table — at least until another demo participant stepped into my line of sight and ruined the illusion.
Microsoft had other reasons for assembling the tech press at a San Francisco hotel for some hands-on time with HoloLens: It wanted to demonstrate how easy it is to build holographic apps with tools like Unity and Visual Studio. It's hard to say for certain how easy it is in practice as opposed to theory, however; all of the heavy lifting with scripting had been done for us ahead of time. But, nonetheless, you can understand why Microsoft is so keen on convincing developers that creating something for HoloLens is really no different from whipping up an app for a smartphone.
"All holograms are universal Windows apps," Microsoft's Brandon Bray said at the start of our HoloLens session. "And all universal Windows apps can be turned into holograms." That's a message Microsoft has sounded repeatedly during Build as it hopes to convince developers to give its virtual-reality headset a spin.
The promise is certainly there, if the demos during Build's opening keynote are any indication. The company showed architects using HoloLens to create multidimensional models; medical students examining how bones, organs and systems fit together in a virtual cadaver; and engineers interacting with a virtual robot overlaid on top of a real machine.
Based on my HoloLens experience, I'd say the headset is not yet ready for prime time, even if you make allowances for the early-development hardware and software that are not yet final. But if Microsoft can get a room full of tech journalists to intently peer down at a virtually exploded hotel room floor that's been transformed into a 3D world, I wouldn't put it past the company to deliver on the promise of this groundbreaking new platform.
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