Microsoft HoloLens: An Amazing Peek into the Future of Computing
Microsoft HoloLens perfectly embodies the new emerging world of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). In the past few months, the mixed reality (MR) headset has attracted a lot of buzz. Things got more exciting with the March release of the HoloLens developer edition, which you can snag for a pricey $3,000.
With VR and AR generating a lot of buzz in and beyond Silicon Valley, Microsoft has not been left behind in the fight to create the first really good VR device. Facebook recently launched a consumer version of the Oculus Rift, though early reviews indicate that it could have done with a few more months of refining. Samsung is getting ready to launch a second version of its headset, the Gear VR. Magic Leap, a highly secretive company, is rumored to be preparing a device that will redefine the tech industry. Apple and Google are working on their own VR/AR developments.
So Microsoft is hardly the only company hoping to be the “ONE”. So far, Microsoft VR seems well placed to be the dominant force in the industry. The developer edition of the Microsoft HoloLens is far from perfect; the device is buggy, inadequate and a bit unintuitive. But it shows a lot of promise. The final product, if Microsoft decides to push on beyond the developer edition, will be nothing short of amazing.
The Ins and Outs of Microsoft HoloLens
To hear journalists and tech reviewers say it, you would think HoloLens is some alien device with technology from several decades in the future. Despite its many flaws, which we shall see shortly, Microsoft HoloLens is still one of the best pieces of technology in recent times.
The HoloLens is based on mixed reality technology. This is a cross between virtual reality (where the user is completely immersed in a different world and shut out from the real one) and augmented reality (where computer-generated input is overplayed in one’s view of the real world). In mixed reality or simply MR, virtual reality is overlaid into the real world.
HoloLens projects mixed reality in form of 3D holographic content. These holograms appear in the real world, though they are only visible to the headset wearer. This is science fiction turning to reality.
This gives the Microsoft HoloLens some breathtaking capabilities. With the headset on, you can see a virtual object sitting on your real table. A designer can project a virtual car on a work area and tweak its shape and look. You can stand on a virtual surface of mars while still standing in your office. The possibilities are endless.
The technology behind Microsoft HoloLens and other VR/AR devices is still in the infancy stages. Companies are currently in a development rush, recruiting top talent and investing more money in research and development. That Microsoft has achieved HoloLens this early is in itself a massive feat. It is an indication of just how far VR/AR/MR technology is poised to go.
Microsoft is already hinting at some of the exciting applications of the HoloLens.
- It could change how we communicate with Skype, allowing people to talk to live-size holographic images each other.
- It could change how artists and designers work, allowing them to create virtual designs without using a computer or Smartphone.
- It will create new and exciting gaming options. Imagine being a detective and interacting with life-size virtual characters.
- It could change how we learn, creating immersive experiences for more powerful and interactive learning.
As we talk about the technology behind the Microsoft HoloLens, it is also necessary to discuss the physical design, as this is an important part of its usability. Being a mixed reality device the HoloLens does not go for a full blinding headset such as the one used in Oculus Rift. It looks a little like a marriage between Oculus Rift and Google Glass.
The main part is the front where the lenses are located. To keep it in place, arms go around the head, latching at the back. Extra straps can be used for more stability. The design is actually good looking, not at all dorky or awkwardly oversized. But this relatively compact design limits the battery size that can be used (remember that it is wireless), meaning that power lasts just 2 to 3 hours. Of course, this is not the final design. The consumer edition of Microsoft HoloLens could be completely different in style and look.
Groundbreaking Tech with Many Flaws
Yes, the Microsoft HoloLens is an amazing device. Yes. It incorporates some very advanced technology. Yes, it could potentially change the world. But no, you should not buy it as a consumer device in its current state. Even Microsoft agrees.
The HoloLens comes with a long list of flaws and limitations that would doom it as a consumer product:
1. Narrow field of view
Once you project holograms onto the real world, you have to keep within a narrow field of view to keep seeing them. Turn your eyes even a little bit and they disappear or you only see a small bit. This could be a major limitation of the HoloLens as a consumer product.
2. Not the most comfortable wearable
The headset has to be cinched down tightly to ensure it remains in the same place throughout. But you still have to constantly adjust it or else your holograms will keep on disappearing from view. Thankfully, the developer edition of the Microsoft HoloLens comes with extra straps for an extra tight fit.
The controls can be quite frustrating. To manipulate you can either use gestures or give voice commands. Both do not work very well. This is something Microsoft has to work on before it can release the product for use by consumers. The tech has to be easy to use with highly intuitive controls and a quick learning curve.
4. Extremely short battery life
Currently, you can only use the headset for 2 to 3 hours before it runs out of juice. This is an extremely short battery life and not practical for a consumer product. It is highly likely that Microsoft will figure out a way to extend battery life in the final product; either by using advanced battery technology or attaching a larger capacity battery pack.
5. Poor performance in bright light and the outdoors
The best performance form HoloLens is visible when used in a dim room. Here, holograms seem a bit more solid, creating a highly realistic experience. However, in a bright room or the outdoors, the visuals can get a bit hazy, taking on a rather ghostly appearance and undermining the intended realism of the experience. Again, just like the battery life, these are the growing pains of new technology.
The Consumer Edition
To their credit, Microsoft themselves realize that the HoloLens is not yet ripe for release into the world. But they want to give the prototype some real world experience, hence the release of the $3,000 developer edition HoloLens. Developers will be able to test out the capabilities and limits of the device. Most importantly, they will be able to figure out the best applications for the mixed reality headset for consumers.
In many ways, the developer edition is an experiment, a risky part of the development process. It could go the way of Google Glass, but it is a risk Microsoft is willing to make. After much testing and iteration, they hope that the final product will be one that people will want to buy.
To succeed, the consumer edition has to look good, be easy to use, have a wide range of capabilities, have a sensible battery life and actually improve people’s lives. It is a tall order for Microsoft but they have the means and resources to achieve it.
Looking at it retrospectively, Google Glass was technology ahead of its time. There wasn’t much talk on virtual or augmented reality at the time, giving Glass an isolated geeky status. The social implications of the wearable also proved inhibiting. For Microsoft, things are vastly different. VR and AR is all anyone can talk about now. The technology is getting up to speed and the market seems ready to test out these new novelties.
Whether it takes months, 2 years or 5 years, Microsoft will push on with a consumer edition of the Microsoft HoloLens. Seeing the new direction tech is going, they cannot afford to give up.
Microsoft HoloLens Pricing
As already mentioned, getting your hands on the developer edition of HoloLens is not going to be cheap. But for $3,000 you get first peek into a potentially world-changing technology and enjoy a chance to make a contribution to its development.
It is understandable that Microsoft prices the HoloLens at $3,000. For one, VR is not cheap. Developing it requires a huge financial investment, which extends into high price points for the consumers. The costly nature of production is made worse by the fact that the technology necessary is still in its early development stages. Secondly, Microsoft might want to create some exclusivity around the developer edition, helping create more exposure while keeping demand within reasonable limits.
Beyond the developer edition, the number that really matters is the price of the final consumer-ready HoloLens. It is of no doubt that Microsoft has to bring down the price drastically if it hopes to penetrate the market. Not many people are going to buy a $2,000 or even $3,000 device, as good as it might be.
Microsoft has not given a hint on possible pricing, seeing that even they do not know whether there will ever be a consumer version. But if the HoloLens ever gets to a consumer-ready point, our educated guess would put the price anywhere from $500 to $2,000.
The final price will depend a lot on how good the final product will be. Microsoft will have to find a balance between affordability and pricing the HoloLens at its true value. While it could start out expensive ($1,000 or more), future versions will likely be cheaper as more people come aboard and the technology gets cheaper.
Microsoft has to be really cautious about when it releases the HoloLens. Wait too long and competition will start taking over the market. Do it too soon and they might release an inexcusably flawed product the market will reject, perhaps forever.
Currently, Microsoft is busy developing the technology to power HoloLens to perfection. With their Smartphone business having faltered, they are eager to be at the cutting edge of the next big thing. As developers get a taste of 3D holograms, we can only speculate on the release date of a consumer-ready product. It will likely not be in the next few months or year. There is still too much to do. We would peg the big launch for 2018.
HoloLens and the Future of Computing
Virtual reality has been so quick to catch on that it has been something of a surprise. But what is even more shocking is the impact VR technology is likely to have on computing. When you think of computing right now, you probably picture swiping on a Smartphone or clicking away on a laptop or desktop. But in the next several years, this imagery will change, thanks to virtual reality (and other related digital realities).
In a decade, we might no longer have any use for laptops and Smartphones. Currently, we experience most technology through screens. Then, our interactions with tech could be much deeper and more interactive. HoloLens provides a peek into the world that will be; it is a first step to the future that computing is rushing toward.
You will be able to walk into a virtual store and browse the shelves while seated comfortably at home. You will be able to create a 3D sculpture right in your living room without having to touch a computer. You will be able to travel to outer space while seated in your office. Everything from education to healthcare to entertainment to communication will change immensely.
HoloLens is a big gamble for Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. In the end, it could prove a costly and embarrassing failure. But the odds are stacked in their favor. Unlike Smartphones and computers that have been around for years, Microsoft is gunning for a completely new technology experience. If it pays off, and chances are that it will, Microsoft, and the world, will reap big.
Are you excited about virtual reality and where it is headed? Where do you see HoloLens ending up? Leave your comment below.