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HoloLens: Can it live up to Microsoft's sizzle video?

An ambitious, creative effort to redefine how we interact with technology; 2015 is looking more and more like a watershed year

Sometimes I feel like we take the pace of technological progress rather for granted. My instant reaction to the unveiling of Microsoft's ultra-futuristic, science-fiction-esque augmented reality technology, HoloLens, was to think how great it is that so many major technology companies seem to be focused, this year, on big new ideas; wearable computers, VR headsets, augmented reality displays; all ideas that could fundamentally change how we interact with technology, information and entertainment. "Finally!", I thought, as if this indicated that we are emerging from some long creative drought, countless parched years of dull evolution with no sign of revolution worth mentioning.

I wasn't alone in that reaction; indeed, it's an undertone of a great deal of media coverage and private conversation about the aforementioned technologies. It is, of course, a terribly unfair reaction. Sure, a great many things in our lives evolve rather than changing dramatically; I'm typing this on a powerful, wafer-thin, ultra-light laptop that runs for a full working day without needing to recharge, which is all fantastic but still, ultimately, a laptop computer which is similar in concept and function to laptop computers I owned in the 1990s. Other things truly have changed our lives, though; tablets, which only became popular (and useful for the mass market) with the iPad back in 2010, are ubiquitous now, but modern smartphones, introduced in 2007, have truly changed the world and our lives - mostly, I'd argue, for the better. 2007 is not all that long ago; I guess we've come to expect world-altering technological leaps on a pretty aggressive schedule.

"Ultimately, though, an expensive device you need to strap to your head seems to have real value to core gamers only if it maximises immersion in the game world, which is precisely the opposite of what HoloLens aims to achieve"

Still, there is something really exciting about seeing the world's tech companies really throwing their weight behind ideas that are different, innovative and hold the potential to be the next big, world-changing thing. Google and Apple believe in wearable tech and will push it hard in 2015. Sony and Facebook have placed big bets on virtual reality; there's a reasonable chance that one of them, at least, will have a product on sale to consumers within the next 12 months. Now Microsoft has picked up the augmented reality concept and seems set to pursue it aggressively, albeit probably not in consumer form for quite some time. Google, of course, has placed bets in this area as well, with Google Glass; part of what makes Microsoft's HoloLens offering so immediately interesting is that it's such a different approach to Glass, treating the tech as something you slip on to perform specific tasks in your home or work environment, rather than something you wear all the time, including out in public - with all the attendant privacy-related creepiness that brings.

From the perspective of videogames, each of these technologies has exciting potential. Virtual reality headsets have focused on games as their killer application from the outset; early adopters of the tech are most likely to be core gamers. Wearable devices are at the other end of the spectrum, with gaming applications undoubtedly possible but a little tricky to conceptualise - though someone, somewhere out there, probably has an amazing Apple Watch or Google Gear game in mind already - and early adopters are more likely to be interested in either the technical or fashion aspects of the devices than in gaming per se. HoloLens falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Microsoft made much of the gaming potential of the technology - and started eking value from its acquisition of Minecraft developer Mojang with a by-all-accounts impressive tech demo of Minecraft running as augmented reality overlaid over a real-life space. Ultimately, though, an expensive device you need to strap to your head seems to have real value to core gamers only if it maximises immersion in the game world, which is precisely the opposite of what HoloLens aims to achieve. In itself, that's an interesting idea, but it presents major challenges to game designers and will most likely see early adoption focused away from gamers and towards different classes of user.

The interesting thing about all this new technology, though, is that even if none of it turns out to be a world-shaking upheaval in the way that smartphones were, each class of device looks set, at least, to enjoy a healthy niche. Virtual reality will work very well for certain types of game, and the "you look goofy" crowd clearly haven't considered how many play-hours of Destiny are carried out by people sitting alone and in various states of undress (and that's just in my own living room); for games primarily played physically alone (albeit interacting with others online), the "goofy headset" aspect simply doesn't matter. Smart-watches, meanwhile, already have some adherents despite the well-discussed interface issues of Google Gear; with Apple entering the market this year (though I suspect their pricing will be more like a watch than a gadget, which is to say, bloody expensive) and other manufacturers upping their game in response, this field certainly feels like the one with the most likelihood to rival the ubiquity of smartphones, a few generations of hardware and software down the line. Then there's augmented reality; a word which Microsoft largely seemed to avoid, incidentally, preferring the term "hologram" - perhaps a deliberate attempt to distance themselves from Google Glass. I'm not sure I see very many people donning a bulky headset in their kitchen in order to read virtual notes on the fridge, but the potential for collaborative working or playing in shared virtual spaces seems enormous; rather than being a direct rival to VR, HoloLens and products like it could be VR's more sociable cousin.

"my concern is that it's going to be way less impressive in a room that doesn't look like an expansive, rather clinically tidy Ikea showroom"

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question of how well any of this actually works - especially HoloLens, the latest addition to the pantheon and the one of most questionable lineage. Bluntly, I don't trust Microsoft's so-called "sizzle" videos - stylish packages put together to introduce audiences to the potential of new technologies - any further than I could throw the aforementioned elephant, and I'm really not certain just how well HoloLens is going to be able to render an elephant in a room. Part of the cynicism which colours my otherwise enthusiastic response to the product relates to the fact that much of it is clearly a development of technology first seen in Kinect; all that stuff related to mapping real-world spaces so that software can make sense of them is more or less what Kinect was purported to do. Problem is, Kinect also had very impressive "sizzle" videos which basically turned out to be wildly over-optimistic at best, or a pack of lies at worst; the technology never worked reliably and enjoyably in the way it was originally presented, which is a big part of the reason why it became such a millstone around the neck of the Xbox One.

I don't doubt that the Kinect-related elements have been much improved (honestly, the Xbox One version of the tech never really got a fair shake, with customer reaction to it being coloured largely by bad experiences of the original peripheral) but the claims being made for HoloLens in Microsoft's promotional material simply feel suspect - partially due to track record and partially due to a raised eyebrow at the enormous leap being proposed here over existing, largely unimpressive, implementations of augmented reality. I don't doubt that HoloLens can do impressive things in ideal conditions; as with Kinect, my concern is that it's going to be way less impressive in a room that doesn't look like an expansive, rather clinically tidy Ikea showroom. Even so, if the first version of the technology does even half of what the sizzle video claimed, it will be amazing; it's just that it'll forever be condemned to comparison with that video, with nobody at Microsoft having ever heard the adage about under-promising and over-delivering, it seems.

So, pinches of salt all round. 2015 is going to be an amazing year for personal technology, with wearables going mass-market (probably), VR finally reaching consumers (possibly) and interest building around a whole new category of "holographic" augmented reality (albeit with a consumer launch likely quite far off). Each of these developments will bring new opportunities for game designers and creators; new ways to entertain and interact. Each of them, too, definitely needs that pinch of salt. There are lots of problems to be ironed out, from pricing and business model to basic functionality or technological polish; a year with so many ambitious "version 1" products turning up is also a year that's going to have its fair share of disappointments. Still; I'll take being underwhelmed by ambitious moonshots over being underwhelmed by slightly faster laptop processors and slightly higher resolution screens any time - and I can't wait to see the new ways that like-minded game designers find to entertain and entrance with these new categories of hardware.

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Latest comments (20)

Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.7 years ago
A good summary Rob.
The Kinect V2 in many ways technically lives up to the initial sizzle videos, so they do get there eventually (or very quickly depending on your perspective). If they really mean holographic I don't see why it couldn't be used for VR too if it has sufficient FOV. Microsoft know the part games played in home adoption of PCs, smartphones etc. so we can expect them to pay attention to that aspect.
Using phone screens in HMDs is a good way to experiment but its nice to see more sophisticated solutions being developed.
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Bradford Hinkle Associate Product Manager, Spicy Horse Games 7 years ago
Video games are really only a small aspect of what this technology is capable of. Minecraft is probably just a hook to get the younger generation used to this type of tech early on.
Regardless of how well it works in version 1, this technology will fundamentally change the way we live. Imagine having freedom of movement while you work instead of being tethered to a desk for 8 - 12 hours every day. Thats the real promise here.
Voice recognition's role in this will be just as important as the holograms for making it practical. I look forward to the day I can browse the web, make comments, edit excel sheets, test new dev builds, etc on any surface in my home or work. My back and immune system will thank me and the next generation will wonder why we ever put up with sitting desks.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bradford Hinkle on 23rd January 2015 10:34am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Remember the glasses from the movie They Live? HoloLens is sort of the opposite in a "Meet the Pyro" sort of way.
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Show all comments (20)
Istvan Fabian Principal Engineer, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe7 years ago
And finally we all know really why MS wanted Minecraft in-house.
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Antony Carter Senior Programmer, Epic Games7 years ago
Will i have to horizontally and vertically align all my furniture to 90 degrees to play Minecraft?
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
I agree with the over deliver sentiment. I'm still mad about the amazing offensive videos that Milo could have generated on YouTube (the likely reason for its cancellation).

This stuff is still very experimental, and yes, 90-degree rooms ensure it screws up the least on camera, but check out the output of the different layers of Kinect sometime. Even Kinect 1 worked remarkably well creating a 3D map of the room. So while pinning uncle Joes skype window to the toilet tank, and having it rock solid stay there without jumping back into position after you turn away is not likely a 1, or 2.0 feature, if they're smart the system will learn locations you often visit, and improve its anticipation and mapping for better response. I've been saying, again as a huge VR AND 3D fan, that the public is not going to go for the Oculus. This, if it can become as unobtrusive as a pair of sports safety glasses, they will.
And they can iron most of this out while the CAD and other designers are using it in fixed spaces. Just must remember: hand mouse sucks, and I forsee you having to wear marker gloves to make that stuff work

PS Sony has not put a lot into VR. They took an existing product designed to be used on planes that costs $1000, added some accelerometers and markers for Move. While a bunch of moeny may have been spent on the HMD, it wasn't for VR, nor was it by Sony Computer Entertainment
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Promotion vs. hyperbole?

If there was an accountability for over hype then we could live with this - but without any checks and balances we live in a land of skepticism over such claims.

At least with Xbone, the comeuppance for all those executives that sold us a crock about what the Xbone could do and how it could do it was the loss of their jobs. Many abandoning the industry ashamed of their departures!

Nintendo with the Wii (subsequently needing the Wii-Plus justify staying relevant) and the whole situation over the Wii+ tells us as that the industry has become unpalatable about the quality of product, and for PeterM to start handing out advice seems a little bit hypocritical.

Industry get some teeth and sort out your house, or lose customer support!
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
What if you live in a small apartment or share your space with someone who doesn't want the living room turned into a giant holo-toybox? The grand perception is every gamer will love this tech (and under the proper circumstances, they indeed will). The reality will be a bit divided, as usual. That said, it will be fun to see which developers do something way outside the expected boxes with this. I can see a killer horror game experience and at least a few RPG ideas worth exploring...
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
Kevin,

Can you be more specific about the claims that went unfulfilled on the X1?

The biggest problem I've seen is people without a clue parsing things into their paranoia, and executives making comments who are use to talking to knowledgeable business people, and not partisan fanboys (which was a big mistake)
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Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer 7 years ago
The big thing will be whether it can cope with lighting and depth under normal conditions (which Kinect just could not do - my living room is proof). What's 'projected' has to be locked ON to the the surfaces, even if they're tilted or uneven. If they misjudge that then things are going to be flickering all over or twisting strangely as you turn your head, and you will have a literal headache and nausea to boot.

I hope they can make it work! I want it. If it works 99.9999% of the time.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
I've found in my room that the paint on the wall was highly IR reflective/scattering. That's been the biggest problem with Kinect in my experience
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
If find the Microsoft hype rather tame and restrained. I would have shown a company in which upper management gets theses glasses. Naturally, the first thing they do is replace the real visuals of their employees with younger, better trained and mostly naked holographic versions. Then middle management gets their glasses, at which point everybody else drops any notion of a dress code and comes to work in the most heinous outfits known to man, without anybody really noticing or commenting on it. By that time, meetings mostly center around which middle aged white guy has his holographic self converted into a version with black skin, since holographic diversity is important in today's society and good for the company image. After a heated debate about blackfacing, a whitefaced black guy suggests that holographic skin tones are to be restricted to green, blue and purple, which is quickly adopted into company policy. From there it descends into everybody running around flinging their hands while making Zoidberg noises, mainly for the reason that everybody has effectively lost the ability to discern such behavior from doing real work. After the company is sold for $3 billion a year later, the new owners find out that behind the facade of every holographic person there is now a dog and humans have long since been replaced. When they try to leave the building and file a complaint, they are stopped by Peter Molyneux handing them a HoloLens with the words: "you are going to love these dogs".
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>"... more specific about the claims that went unfulfilled on the X1?"
@Jeff - yes I can be specific, the claimed performance (graphical) with certain game examples, performance with Kinect II and also performance on downloading and connectivity have been proven by a number of sites to be sub the original claims (examples 80 of researched users have failed to get kinect II to operate as promoted).
http://www.polygon.com/2014/2/17/5419464/microsoft-xbox-one-remove-kinect-pack-in

The best example is the side by side comparisons with PS4 - and the numerous cases where unmodified Xbone hardware has been unable to sustain same performance claimed against PS4. If you are going to quibble on these examples and demand exact quotes can I pass you too Google (just type in "Xbox vs PS4" - if you still have issues then no one can help you!)

>"...The biggest problem I've seen is people without a clue parsing things into their paranoia,"
I have found that attacks in comments against persons motifs rather than answering the question is a new form of hiding the issue on some forums. Attempting to "call out" an individuals knowledge or claim some hidden "paranoia". The motive is being called by some "monstering" - attempting to discredit and divert the argument without addressing the unpalatable points raised (some times linked to vested interests).

Well @Jeff I am quite willing to stand up and be counted - not a paranoiac, but a known writer in this and other sectors, published author, conference presenter and consultant in this an a number of other entertainment sectors. Now you stand up, and claim that the XBone has achieved the performance criteria it was promised to amount too, that the Kinect II has also performance as promised ("Xbox On!") - and that MS has not undertaken a major redressing of its development and executive team to try and readdress poor performance (hardware and sales), and I will be willing to read your reply and examples - but I would recommend in future; don't try and attack a person as being un-knowledgeable or a paranoiac without due cause... some friendly advice.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
Kevin, I'm not attacking you, the vast majority of people who can't get Kinect to work don't calibrate it properly, don't learn the commands, or don't learn the cadence (there's an app for that), or they put it right next to a speaker that blasts out the microphones. 9 times out of ten those are the problems with the several dozen people I've helped get their Kinects running. The other times it was typically objects in the background like the paint I mentioned scattering the IR sonar. People just don't spend the time finding an old location,a d. Taking the fifteen minutes or so to get it working well. Mount it as high as possible, looking slightly doen, and try to get at least six feet if you plan on playing motion games.

Gesture control is a terrible OS interface, and no one wants it. The hand as a mouse is just crap. A finger mouse works way way better, but to work well you have to put on an IR reflectove ring.

There are gobs of paranoia involving Kinect, so much so that mounts include camera blocking flags. Sony's propaganda team did their jobs very well, and stoked out piles of crap that was already brewing into big kerfluffles. People were taking every word Mattrick and company said, and parsing it into doomsday evil scenarios that were frankly ridiculous.

I'd like to see some specific quotes you have issues with, specific promises broken

The Polygon piece is a year old, a hell of a lot has changed in that time. The thing works, and it works well, but it never got a chance to do anything before any reason to develop for it got cut off at the knees. I feel really bad for Harmonix, whose wonderful Fantasia has gotten buried, and the in-development stuff that is certainly now canned that I hear was even cooler
I'm sorry if my questions came off as hostile. I have a lot of experience with Kinect, both as a gamer, and watching people use it for other applications everything from robots to medical uses.

So if it sounds like I'm challenging you, I'm not, I genuinely want to know why you feel the way you do, which may be entirely justified once I see the specifics.
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@Jeff - thank you for your observations and also the clarification of your point of view.

I appreciate your comments, and hope that I did not come across too aggressive. I have been playing on the ropes with the Reddit posters and may have become a bit too hardened to comments - if I came across to hard i apologies for that.

I know we will not agree on the actual validity of the XBone shortfall - and if there was ever one! I feel that the problems that some developers are seeing with getting the best performance out of the MS system is a factor in this, but understand your position - and will keep an open mind.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 7 years ago
One of these will hit eventually.

I cant wait, am partially worried about giving myself a heart attack in a VR or AR survival horror game.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
@kevin

One of the things I do, though I am not employed in doing so by Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, or their contractors or subsidiaries, is keep a constant monitor on the "temperature" of various aspects of the entertainment industry. So hearing what people THINK is the case, right or wrong or subjective, is just as important, especially when it's a more educated opinion such as your own. That's why im curious about the specific quotes.

Those perceptions and opinions get weighed with the facts. For example, fans scream about 1080p/60, but in reality, the mainstream purchasing period, which we are entering with these consoles diesnt care, especially since most people sit too far from their TV to resolve above 720p anyway. They do care about flashy, pretty pictures, so going 900p vs 1080 makes very little real world difference. On a related note, Assassins Creed went 900p so they could use the GPU for additional CPU tasks, and but that logical deduction did nothing for the perception that the PS4 version had been crippled for parity.

So while I may disagree, I still value your perspective
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
How many people have cars that can go way beyond the local speed limits? 1080p is not about what you can make out from your couch.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
Very exciting technology but I don't think its Microsoft who are in danger of overhyping it.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 7 years ago
@Klaus

Yes it is, as if you can't see it, it may as well not be there. Unless you mean as a propaganda tool, or measuring stick for fanboy pissing contests
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