When we first used Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headset, we thought it was magical, but our enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when we used the hardware a second time. Moving from raw development unit to integrated pre-production hardware, the field of view had narrowed, making the holographic experience much less immersive. The hardware still worked well, but it no longer had the same power to take us to new worlds.
The gap between what HoloLens promised and what it delivered was concerning, and Microsoft’s demos of games like Minecraft and Halo has only exacerbated this problem. We don’t want that. We don’t want a poisoned well. And we think it’s up to Microsoft to close that opportunity at the pass – by repositioning its audience and by evangelizing more wisely.
Avoid the poisoned source
Adoption of and interest in virtual reality was arguably delayed for years by the frankly awful virtual reality experiences of the early 1990s. Early versions just didn’t work well, and they soured many of the whole concept. Only in the last few years have these past experiences been left behind and interest in VR systems has rekindled, with Oculus, now owned by Facebook, leading the way.
A bad HoloLens-type device that promises the world but fails to deliver can similarly hinder the uptake of AR. Augmented reality introduces additional challenges not found in VR; AR systems must monitor their environment and ensure that computer-generated objects integrate consistently with that environment. When virtual objects become detached from the physical surfaces they are supposed to be attached to, the illusion breaks and the experience suffers. More generally, if technology limitations create a gulf between the promise – the seamless merging of the real and the virtual, augmenting reality with unreality – and the reality, both HoloLens and anything else that claims to provide a similar experience offer may be compromised.
After all, we’ve seen this sort of thing before, with the technology that in many ways is HoloLens’ immediate predecessor: Kinect. Kinect’s promise was huge: “You are the controller.” It sold like gangbusters amid expectations of a variety of rich game interactions, and then failed to deliver on its promises. It didn’t work well enough for everything people hoped it would do, and developers struggled to use Kinect to meaningfully improve their games. Microsoft doubled down on Kinect by including the (technically superior) Kinect 2 with the Xbox One, and this move was met with indifference at best and outright disdain at worst. Kinect didn’t really work well for gamers, so why did Microsoft make its gaming device more expensive with this unwanted non-gaming peripheral?
The company eventually backed out and now sells Kinect-less Xbox Ones, but the damage has been significant, both to Kinect in particular and to motion sensing more broadly. This history has overshadowed the Kinect applications that have been really successful in fields like medicine and science.
The limited field of view is likely to have the same adverse effect on HoloLens.
Part of the problem is due to the way Microsoft has been demonstrating HoloLens on stage. The way Microsoft presented HoloLens, although not exactly misleading, nevertheless failed to properly capture the subjective experience of using the hardware. The problem with any technology like HoloLens is that the experience doesn’t translate to third parties. Only the person looking through the headset can see the mix of real-world and computer graphics. The computer-generated portion only works from the user’s perspective, which makes showing HoloLens on stage a challenge.
Microsoft tackled this challenge by combining regular video cameras with Kinect-style sensors (much like HoloLens does). The Kinect sensors provide the same kind of positional input and information that the HoloLens headset has, and the computer-generated portions can be overlaid on the camera output to provide a close equivalent to the HoloLens experience. During the on-stage demonstrations, Microsoft’s Kinect cameras shared the same 3D landscape as the HoloLens user, allowing us to “see” what the HoloLens user could see, albeit from a different position and angle.
This solution was smart and effective, but had a problem; it didn’t replicate the HoloLens’ field of view. It showed the full 3D scene. HoloLens, as we found out in our subsequent use of it, generally doesn’t display the full scene unless the scene is very small or you’re standing far away from it. In many ways this is understandable. When using a HoloLens, you can slightly compensate for the limited field of view by moving your head. If you have a Kinect camera setup being held by a cameraman, that’s not really possible. It was always a third-person perspective of an intrinsic first-person experience, and that will never show the full picture.
Recent videos have made the limitations more obvious by mimicking something closer to the first-person HoloLens experience. And it’s still pretty cool. But it’s not quite what we thought it should be.
It all felt like Microsoft was about to deliver something that was great, but would inevitably lead to disappointment. Nowhere was this difference greater than in one of Microsoft’s most accessible HoloLens demos: HoloLens Minecraft. This demo was hugely immersive, something that would excite millions of people Minecraft players, but it also made the visual field limitations feel most acute. Minecraft is filled with massive structures, cavernous caverns, and expansive vistas, and HoloLens lets you view them all through a letterbox.
This demo was concerning because HoloLens Minecraft is a mass-market application, promoted to an audience that probably doesn’t care why the technical limitations exist, doesn’t necessarily buy it because of a carefully reasoned cost-benefit analysis, and just wants the thing to be fun rather than incrementally more productive. If this audience is mis-sold on version one, they certainly won’t buy version two, even if version two fixes version one’s problems. As former President George W. Bush so eloquently put it, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…you can’t be fooled again.”
Finding the right audience
But the situation became a lot less worrying after Mary Jo Foley interviewed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. While the desirability of HoloLens as a gaming peripheral is unavoidable, version one of the hardware will not target the Minecraft audience. It will be aimed at business and enterprise users in applications where the powerful visualization capabilities may be more important than the ability to deliver immersive virtual worlds. Its success will be measured in terms of increased productivity and enabling new scenarios, not the ability to provide visceral new sensations.
For example, one of the situations Microsoft has demonstrated is using HoloLens in a partially completed building, allowing builders, architects, and clients to discuss changes while literally standing inside the partially completed building. Even with limitations of the field of view, this application is not something that can easily be performed in any other way; 3D renderings lack the immediacy that visiting a site provides, and physical models lack the easy malleability that virtual worlds provide. HoloLens doesn’t have to be the perfect AR implementation to provide practical value over these alternatives. No, it won’t provide a perfectly immersive 3D world. But it will provide significantly richer interaction than a computer screen alone could ever hope for.
Microsoft’s own marketing efforts should, of course, reflect this positioning. If Microsoft doesn’t want the HoloLens to be seen as a gaming device with the sky-high expectations that come with such a device – if the company wants it to be seen as something more business oriented and more productive – then it would go for it good to stop showing off Minecraft demos, even if they are Lots of fun!, Have fun.
This focus can be further reinforced by pricing the device at, say, $1,500 instead of $500. A $500 gaming peripheral is expected to deliver the moon on a stick; $500 is a lot of money to spend on a gaming device. You can buy an entire console for less than that, so it sets extremely high expectations: it shouldn’t offer anything less than one Scott pilgrim against the world style experience. A $1,500 business productivity device is, for that very different market, relatively cheap. While even this audience will expect HoloLens’ visuals to impress – and they will – the main thing expected from HoloLens is to save time, improve collaboration, and make money. The requirements will be much more in line with what it can actually achieve.
While it will certainly be a disappointment Minecraft fans who want to take a tour of their blocky worlds, it’s good for HoloLens and augmented reality in general. It means that instead of being judged by the high standards of our imaginations, this exciting product will be a little more grounded. This gives Microsoft and others room to improve and refine the experience. One day, AR will surely offer the kind of immersive 3D worlds that many hope for. But for now, the threat of bait and switch – a huge gap between what is being sold and what is actually possible – must be averted. HoloLens version one will still be magical and exciting. Giving it a business focus prevents it from being crushed under the weight of expectations that are unattainable for now.