I sit every day at a desk with a pair of 21-inch monitors, a laptop, and a tablet with a keyboard dock. At certain parts of my day, they are all doing something work or play related. Sometimes I'm streaming Netflix while I edit photos or I'm in a Hangout Meeting with the team while hunting for notes from an interview. I'm all over my desk all the time, split across these monitors. My tablet comes with me into the kitchen at the end of the day and gets mounted under my cabinet as a connection to my digital world while I'm making dinner, but if something happens and I'm needed back at my desk it doesn't really do what I need it to do.
I have a collection of flawed devices that I have forced together to accomplish my individual tasks, but what I really want — what I've always wanted — is a single device that can be everywhere I am and do everything I need. Smartphones have been pushing into this space over the last two years, but after logging 24 hours in Microsoft's HoloLens developer kit I think the solution is a whole lot more virtual.
To be clear, I haven't spent 24 straight hours wearing HoloLens. You can't, at least not without tethering yourself to a wall a couple of times a day. My 24 hours has been spread out over five days, and my goal was fairly simple. I wanted to see how much actual work I could get done around my home and office while wearing this headset. I wanted to see if HoloLens actually made my day easier or more convenient in some way, to see if Microsoft's concepts in this developer kit actually extend beyond the "damn this is cool" parts of Augmented Reality.
Unboxing this thing is amazing. It's strange being excited about a box, but this is legit retail packaging and Microsoft did an amazing job. The holographic style to the outline is so damn pretty, and all of this is before you slide the top off. HoloLens itself is inside a crush-resistant zipper container that reminds me a lot of Google Glass. It's a nice felt-like material on the outside with a finger loop to make it a little less awkward to carry. You open the case, and there it is!
HoloLens is a little smaller than it looks in photos and videos, but picking the headset up out of the casing you immediately feel the weight of the thing. It's unbalanced from front to back, but there's this inner halo ring that fastens to the back of your head to act as a counterbalance of sorts. You twist a small ring on the back of the headset to fit your head, and that's it. No clumsy straps, nothing pressing against your face, just a ring around the top of your head and a nose bridge to hold the headset. Even with my glasses, this headset is initially quite comfortable.
My eyes are clearly strained, my forehead is a little sore from the headset, and I'm just sort of generally uncomfortable.
Cortana's iconic voice walks you through an initial setup, during which you learn how to use your hands to interact with HoloLens. It couldn't be more simple — reach out to click with your finger, open your hand to see the main menu. Within minutes, I'm in the interface and have fully grasped the general concepts. Apps are holograms that you adhere to a point in space, and then you click on them to use them. It couldn't be more simple.
After about three hours in the headset, it was time to charge HoloLens and start doing some research on apps that could be useful. There's a Windows Holographic update that needs installing, and as soon as I connect to power Windows starts that process. Twenty-five minutes later, I notice some fatigue from being in HoloLens for so long. My eyes are clearly strained, my forehead is a little sore from the headset, and I'm just sort of generally uncomfortable. Having had some similar experiences with initial VR trials, I'm going to see how I feel the next day instead of immediately judging the headset.
Netflix on the window shade next to my oven while I prepare breakfast is possibly the greatest thing ever. I don't have to worry about grease splattering on my tablet, and the audio coming from the two speakers on HoloLens are pretty great. The show sounds nice and loud to me, but I'm not forcing everyone in the next room to listen as well. HoloLens doesn't have an auto-brightness system for the projected displays, but the buttons that run the left-hand side of the headset are more than capable and let me adjust quickly.
I've started exploring with virtual monitors. Microsoft's Edge Browser goes well above my second monitor for when I need to glance up at some notes. HoloTube to the right of my monitor gives me access to some fun videos to watch. After an hour, it's not hard to imagine a desk that has nothing on it but a wireless keyboard, with HoloLens driving everything I am doing. In its current form, this would mean a lot of deliberate head gestures to see each monitor. Holograms aren't projected to even most of your vision in HoloLens, so you have to be very deliberate about where you place them. Still, having these virtual monitors is incredibly worthwhile to me.
Four hours in, and it's time to charge HoloLens. Removing the headset reveals a massive red stripe across my forehead that takes a little more than 30 minutes for my skin to fully recover from, but so far none of the eye strain I felt yesterday. My eyes adjusted to the new paradigm fairly quickly, which is great. After an hour and a half of charging, it's time to go back in.
Photo editing through HoloLens is a bit of a challenge. The lenses are a little darker than I'm used to with my prescription lenses, and the reflections from other light sources hitting the lenses causes some chromatic aberrations that make using a traditional monitor a little difficult. This could be resolved by me not working in direct sunlight, but my office is a sun room and sometimes this happens. After about 40 minutes the sun shifts and I'm able to go back to work normally.
Compensating for the darker lenses isn't so bad, but writing through the lenses is a little frustrating after an hour. Microsoft places a little white dot in the center of your field of view to act as you mouse pointer, and it doesn't ever go away while you are using Holograms. It's a mild distraction, but tasks that require a great deal more focus and not a lot of mouse interaction could really do with a way to temporarily dismiss the dot.
After nearly nine hours in HoloLens, I can safely say that comfort over time isn't a problem for me. It takes quite a bit of adjusting the halo ring to fit your head just right, and it doesn't hurt to take a break, but Microsoft has done an incredible job with the design.
I now know I can work inside of this thing, but how well can I play? Loading the Microsoft Store reveals a handful of things specifically made for HoloLens, and I decide to give Young Conker a try. The game stars off by asking you to create a detailed spatial map of the room you are in. Mapping my living room takes about 20 minutes, and basically involves slowly wandering around and staring at everything. The experience is visually bizarre and fantastic. You get to see this angular prism form just sort of overlayed on top of all your stuff and at the end the game is ready to be played in your entire space. It's a little time consuming to start, but the end result is a game where you're really able to use your whole space.
There are a few VR-style apps available for HoloLens right now, and using them is just plain weird. The core idea isn't all that different from using Google Cardboard. As you move your head around, you see into a window that has another world on the other side. With Cardboard, your peripheral vision is blocked by the box and there's nothing on the other side of the display. In HoloLens you're still able to see the world around you, so the VR effect loses some of that immersion. It's clear Microsoft's approach relies on specific interactive elements.
The best part of HoloLens is the way it remembers details for the different rooms you are in. This icon on this wall is always there when you look at it, even if you walk in from another room. That holds a much greater effect than a VR replacement for me. It's great for leaving specific apps in specific places when you know you're going to need them every day, and it's absolutely hilarious to leave a 9-foot shark floating in the air when you tell someone wearing HoloLens for the first time to walk into that room.
It turns out no amount of shouting "Look how cool this is?!" will convince your spouse that driving to and walking around in a grocery store while wearing HoloLens is a socially acceptable thing to do. This isn't likely to stop me from trying at some point in the future, but it is true that HoloLens isn't really something you'd wear outside the home or office.
You can install an app for HoloLens that creates a Super Mario-esque green tube on your ceiling that drops a steady amount of ball-pit balls onto your floor until the space is filled with them. If you lay on the floor and try to let them cover you, you're going to be there a really long time and ultimately be disappointed because it doesn't feel the same.
Giant Jenga in HoloLens is weird, and I have never been very good at that game.
Netflix on the wall in the kitchen is super great.
After charging HoloLens for another couple of hours, it was time to give some of the Microsoft core apps a shot. Skype on my Desktop had been bugging me about the HoloLens plug-in, so I installed it and the app to see what would happen. Skype is one of very few apps that will actually follow you from room to room and never leave your side. You can always see the app in your field of view while it is open, and as a result you can't see anything else you've placed in the holo-world. There's some benefit to having an individual Skype chat follow you around, but it feels like the Skype service itself should be pinned to a place like the other apps. Also, video chat inside of HoloLens is super cool for me but a little odd for the person I'm chatting with. I almost wanted to go stand in front of a mirror so the people I was chatting with could see me.
OneDrive isn't installed by default, and that seems a little strange. When you go to download an image from Edge Browser to share on Twitter or Facebook, you get a pop-up asking you to install OneDrive. Installing the app means all of your HoloLens photos are stored in the cloud, but it also means you can pull files from multiple locations as long as you use OneDrive as the conduit.
After roughly six hours of HoloLens on the lowest brightness setting, it was time for a recharge. This is the longest I'd managed get out of HoloLens in a single charge so far.
I have a weird abrasion on my nose from wearing HoloLens now. Something about the nose piece rubbing against my face for extended periods of time hasn't been great. After about an hour in the headset I decide I need to take a day off from wearing HoloLens and let my nose heal a bit.
Netflix on the wall in the kitchen is super great.
My nose feels way better today, but it's still a little sore. Today is all about trying to break HoloLens. See where its limits are, and what this thing can and cannot do. I open up as many apps as I can to see how everything behaves, and it turns out Microsoft handles all of that really well. The apps don't so much multitask as pause when you shift from one to another, so you can open 30 apps and it doesn't really do anything to slow HoloLens down.
I did manage to make HoloLens crash to a full reboot when trying to connect to my 5GHz network, but that has everything to do with my deliberately strange SSIDs. Just about every Microsoft product initially has trouble connecting to my networks because of their SSIDs, and over time the issues are resolved. Since this headset isn't even a consumer product, it's hard to ding HoloLens for that.
For the most part, my attempts to break HoloLens itself failed. Apps, on the other hand, crash and break all the time.
Intense gameplay will quickly show you where this headset gets warm, and unfortunately it's right next to your eyebrows. It takes quite a bit to make the headset heat up, but once it does you'll want to reposition HoloLens a little to keep your skin away from the warmer parts. This isn't hard to do thanks to the halo head connector used in mounting HoloLens, and the headset never got warm enough to feel more than a little uncomfortable, but it's still something to keep in mind.
For the most part, my attempts to break HoloLens itself failed. Apps, on the other hand, crash and break all the time. You can install a ton of apps from the Windows Store on HoloLens, but only the Made For HoloLens apps are actually guaranteed to work. Microsoft is working hard on this whole "One Windows" thing, and Windows Holographic is not a consumer product by any stretch, but this is still a little disjointed.
Five hours into my HoloLens adventure and it was time to charge the headset. Instead of taking the headset off I decided to use a 6-foot cable and try to use the headset when plugged in. It turns out you can drain HoloLens faster than it can charge when you're playing Young Conker, so after another 30 minutes the headset finally shut down and left me wondering where I'd left the smartphone I hadn't touched in half a day.
There are so many things about HoloLens I absolutely love. I think Microsoft has mostly nailed the interface. It's a modern take on windowed apps that I wish I had in all of my VR spaces. With Windows Holographic being made available to partners, it's possible we'll see exactly that on the HTC Vive someday, and that would be incredible. I like the design of the headset, even if I don't fully appreciate the weight of the current field of view. While obviously it'd be amazing for HoloLens to be Google Glass thin and fill my field of view, reality is going to settle on something in the middle, and that's going to be fun.
As developer kits go, HoloLens is exciting. I can't wait to see what happens when more developers start building concepts for this headset. As for a consumer launch, lets hope Microsoft has a killer second revision in mind.