Recently, I had the chance to demo the Microsoft HoloLens, one of the world’s first untethered holographic computers. I walked away disappointed and could not help but think that the HoloLens, a device with so much potential, could end up like Google Glass. Glass was largely deemed a failed experiment, and although it provided a glimpse into the future of computing, it has now been relegated to niche enterprise use cases, rather than changing the face of consumer computing as many had originally hoped.
Although Microsoft HoloLens is much better designed and offers some great technological advances that allow you to interact with virtual holograms, there is a massive gap between user expectations and what can actually be delivered. Back in 2015 when the HoloLens was first announced, there was a lot of promise, mostly coming from the demo that Microsoft gave on stage at its annual developer event, Build 2015. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic, but now that almost 2 years have passed, I am becoming skeptical.
Current Issues with HoloLens
The problem with the demo was that most of what you saw was through a special lens fitted into a video camera, while the actual HoloLens user only saw a small fraction of the actual view. This is the primary drawback of the HoloLens, which makes the device almost unusable, and could be a much bigger issue than originally thought. In other words, the field of view (FOV) of the HoloLens is actually restricted to only 30°, omitting more than 80° of clear space, which typically forms a 110° FOV as seen in a virtual reality (VR) headset, for example.
Although the holograms are all around you, the HoloLens manages to confuse the brain by showing only tiny glimpses of augmented reality (AR). While VR does provide a sense of being immersed in a different world, at times leaving you in awe, the HoloLens simply lacks that wow factor. Neat tricks on the HoloLens like scaling and sizing holograms and screens are lost on the user. In order to enjoy a full-scale hologram experience, one needs a full-scale FOV (110° or more). The HoloLens experience is similar to a mobile AR experience in which you only see the augmented experience through a small screen window, while the brain still sees the normal world all around you. Using HoloLens feels like you are experiencing a mobile AR app on your face, only the mobile screen is placed 10 centimeters away. HoloLens is a half-baked immersion experience that needs to be fixed soon.
Taking Steps to Improve the User Experience
One of first things that Microsoft should do is stop showing videos of the HoloLens experience through a video camera, which raises expectations for both developers and end users. HoloLens has a public relations (PR) issue, which needs to be dealt with before even getting into the technical solutions. A game developer that would like to convert your living room into a battle scene from Star Wars has to ensure that the holograms are sized correctly so that they fit into the FOV. No one wants to see half a robot shooting at you! This problem can become even more acute in industrial environments where workers might rely on the HoloLens for keeping track of various dials and gauges that are represented through holograms. In such a scenario, the worker might only see a portion of what they need to see in order to make a critical decision.
Microsoft has possibly sacrificed FOV for higher pixel density. With the HoloLens being an untethered headset, it has limited processing capabilities and battery life. However, having well-defined holograms has little value when your view of the hologram is limited. Expanding the FOV is not that straightforward, as it is a function of the lens, and having a wider FOV lens means sacrificing pixel density, lowering battery life, and increasing the cost. HoloLens also has limitations with artificial lighting, rather than being synced to the lighting in the room. The holograms can look too bright or dull, making them seem artificial, even if they sit flush on top of a real table. There are other limitations related to frame rates, lags in gesture recognition, and fixed gestures that are hardwired into the chipset itself.
Any good HoloLens developer needs to be well versed with Unity, while having Microsoft application programming interface (API) knowledge. For the most part, the Unity and the Microsoft developer ecosystems are separate, with little overlap. Microsoft is also flogging a singular development platform around Windows 10 that supports desktop, mobile, and HoloLens, making the reality of developing for HoloLens much more complicated.
Moving HoloLens into the Consumer Market
Just like Google Glass, HoloLens shows a lot of promise as a new computing paradigm, but has a number of limitations that are likely to impact its adoption. Microsoft is doing a better job at embedding the HoloLens into enterprises compared to Google, and has stayed away from the consumer market. However, some of the HoloLens developers with whom I have spoken mentioned that the high cost ($3,000) and the current limitations discourage them from expanding its use. In essence, HoloLens is a good platform to experiment with, but not something that they would be scaling or expanding upon. This sounds very similar to the Glass developer experience, although there are many differences.
The bottom line is that in order for HoloLens to become the next computing platform, it has to expand beyond the enterprise market into the consumer market. In the current form, I do not anticipate seeing a consumer version of the HoloLens becoming available before 2020. Even within the enterprise space, it should be seen as a device that is not just a prototype, but a solution that can deploy in volume in the next 2 to 3 years. Microsoft would need to solve the FOV issue during that time period, without paying the price on cost, battery, and pixel density, all of which need to fall into an acceptable ballpark.
If the rumors are true, Apple looks set to enter the AR market in 2017 or 2018. Tractica expects Apple’s acquisition of Metaio to bear fruit sometime soon. If I were a developer working in AR or mixed reality today, I would place my bet on the Apple ecosystem, rather than the Microsoft ecosystem.