If while watching the HoloLens presentation you were reminded of the old Kinect unveiling as Microsoft scanned in objects and made Kinect look like it was flawless, you weren't alone. In fact, former Microsoft executive and current 22Cans boss Peter Molyneux had been thinking the same thing. Molyneux worked closely with the Kinect team during the early days of the motion camera (remember Project Milo?) and he kindly reminisced with GamesIndustry.biz about it after seeing the HoloLens unveiling.
It's worth noting that Molyneux also has the perspective of someone who was privvy to early versions of the HoloLens technology as far back as two years ago. The sense we got is that HoloLens is the natural evolution of Kinect; it's what Kinect was always meant to be.
"I did see the early versions of HoloLens and played around with a few things on it. It was very, very early days in the technology. It is, I have to say a magical experience, seeing these objects in the real world. The problem I think is to make it feel like it is in the real world and not projected into your eye. I think it's, for me, more exciting than even VR but it shares a similar problem as VR does and that is: what is the application going to be?" he began.
"It did remind me of [Kinect]. You kind of want to scream 'don't over promise these things'...My fear is that when you actually put the device on you're not as blown away as you should be"
He continued, "For me, some of the stage demos they had were magical as they were building drones on stage and you start to think back to your Kinect days and how exhausting that would be to move your arm around and tap with your fingers. And this is the problem with VR - the applications that we think are going to be great on it quite often are exhausting or very challenging. My hope is that their concept video doesn't over promise what the technology can deliver. Because the actual experience of seeing a 3D object projected into the world is a magical one."
Similar to how Microsoft positioned Kinect, Molyneux fears that Microsoft may be overhyping its new holographic technology - and as he would fully admit, Molyneux is no stranger to promising the world. Microsoft can't make that mistake again with HoloLens.
"It did remind me of [Kinect]. You kind of want to scream 'don't over promise these things.' The thing about the concept videos is they feel so seamless and it just looks like everything's working and actually, as we found with Kinect, it works all fine if you've got the perfect environment and the perfect distance away and you're the right shape human being. But it's very challenging if any of those things don't come together perfectly," he noted. "The technology that they are showing with HoloGlass is amazing. If you just took a couple parts of that demo and said you could look at a TV screen on any surface, I'd be pretty impressed, but they took it so far into the future. You had Minecraft spinning off into the entire geometry of the room. How they get that geometry they didn't quite say.
"My hope is it's been two years since I've seen the technology and it was awesome tech 2 years ago so maybe they solved a lot of those problems and that video they showed is going to be a reality and a reality that works seamlessly as opposed to one that works in a predefined environment. It's almost as if they kind of oversold it to me, you know the motorbike and going around - and the motorbike just looked perfect. It made me feel as a consumer like 'Oh my God, it's going to be incredible.' My fear is that when you actually put the device on you're not as blown away as you should be."
The other question in Molyneux's mind is just how much support HoloLens will receive over the long haul. If it can't escape Kinect's shadow, that's not a good thing at all for Microsoft.
"The only pressure point is how much dedication Microsoft has and how long they stand behind augmented reality. They stood behind Kinect for a while but it wasn't a loved device. It wasn't loved by the community and I don't think it was particularly loved by Microsoft," he told us. "They really need to just double down on the super talented people they inspire to use it. What Facebook did was they bought Oculus Rift and got everyone involved and invested in it. And they've gone quiet since then and my hope is that they come out with something that defines it. Microsoft needs to do the same."
Indeed, software is the key to any new hardware platform, and for Molyneux it sort of boggles the mind that the hardware manufacturers don't invest more in ensuring platform-defining software is ready to demonstrate the potential of the new system. This, above all, is what Microsoft has to do to make HoloLens a success.
Molyneux commented, "The bizarre thing is a huge amount of effort and time and money goes into researching the tech, like the Kinect tech and scanning the bodies, and there's always this one line that hardware manufacturers - whether it be Microsoft or anyone else - say and that's 'we can't wait to see what happens when it gets into the hands of developers.' Now if Apple had said that when they introduced the iPhone, I don't think we'd ever end up with the iPhone! What really should happen is that they put a similar amount of money into researching just awesome real world applications that you'll really use and that work robustly and smoothly and delightfully.
"The traditional way hardware manufacturers deal with the problem is to give it to developers at an incredibly low cost but I suspect with Kinect and some of the Sony hardware, someone goes into the studio, it's shown off to the developers and then it sits in a corner gathering dust"
"They should spend as much money doing that rather than just on hardware tech and saying, 'Okay developers, we'll leave it to you.' If you look at the cases where technology has worked well - touch is one of those, and Wii Sports and motion control; Nintendo didn't introduce motion control until they had Wii Sports. You weren't just playing a few demos. I just hope that for the Holo stuff that they really choose an application and make that sing. That is what transforms a piece of tech from awe inspiring gadget that you try a few times and show off to friends into something that you use as part of your life, and that's really what we want technology to be. And that requires just an awesome amount of design to be put into the software, not just the hardware."
It's almost a chicken or the egg scenario, but what Microsoft must do is convince devlopers that there will be a genuine HoloLens market. "If they can persuade me as a developer that the market is there, it's big enough, it's not going to be a few thousand headsets, it's going to be a few million headsets, then the development talent will move over I think," Molyneux remarked.
That's easier said than done, though, especially when you have to justify a project to management. "As a personal thing, purely as a personal interest, I'm there. I'd be first in the queue to ask for a Holo set, I'd love to play and experiment around with it. I'd love to see how the technology has advanced from when I saw it first. You can think of all sorts of gimmicks, easily. You and I could probably write 20 things down which would be funny and amusing and that would be fascinating as a developer to focus on. But the problem that always comes is: how do you make money out of it? At the moment there's no release date, there's no ship out quantity, you have no idea what you're writing code for is going to sell ten or ten thousand or ten million. It's rare that you get anybody who's super talented to get involved because they just can't justify it in terms of the amount of time they invest in it," Molyneux continued.
"You've got to remember that if you are building characters and they are going to be three dimensional like holograms then the resolution of those characters and the smoothness of the animation needs to be just spot on. And that's expensive. Thereby hangs the problem. The traditional way hardware manufacturers deal with the problem is to give it to developers at an incredibly low cost but I suspect with Kinect and some of the Sony hardware, someone goes into the studio, it's shown off to the developers and then it sits in a corner gathering dust. And that's not what you want with this new tech. You need super smart people to develop applications for it."
Ultimately, Microsoft needs to throw its weight behind HoloLens and incentivize highly talented game makers to jump on board, Molyneux said: "What they should do is they should say come to us with a proposal and we'll make sure you're super profitable before you even finish. That's what they should do to try and attract the attention of developers, because the problem for development talent is there's so much stuff going on. There's all the VR stuff, there's all the Sony stuff, there's all the cloud stuff, there's all the touch stuff, there's this relentless march of new hardware from mobile manufacturers, and it takes probably three years to make something that's super quality with a new piece of technology like augmented reality. And in that time God knows what's going to happen in mobile, God knows what's going to happen with VR, so there is a problem."
Skepticism aside, Molyneux remains fascinated and interested in the HoloLens tech and its potential for gaming. "You have to tip your hat to Microsoft; it's a bold step and they didn't have to do that," he said and added jokingly, "The only thing is I'm not going to want to have a hat rack of VR helmets that I've got to switch in and switch out."