We test HoloLens, VR’s augmented cousin – USA TODAY

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USA TODAY’s Marco Della Cava demonstrates how Microsoft’s augmented reality headset shows how one day we may only interact with digital content in holographic form.
Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — The line for a quick demo of HoloLens snaked through Moscone Center during Microsoft’s Build 2016 developers conference Wednesday.

The excitement is easy to explain.

HoloLens is the world’s first augmented reality device to hit developers, with shipments starting today. But at this stage it’s a bit like when Steve Jobs unveiled that first app-lite iPhone. Impressive, but of limited use.

That’s why Microsoft is banking on some of the 5,000 developers that have converged on Build to create applications that may one day cause AR goggles to be as ubiquitous as smartphones. In fact, AR is expected to take a 75% slice of 2020’s $120 billion AR/VR pie, according to industry advisers Digi-Capital.

So the question is: In its first-gen state, is $3,000 HoloLens worth the hype?

How about an emphatic yes with a few critical asterisks.

USA TODAY was granted two hours with HoloLens earlier this week, with the majority of that time dedicated to free exploration unfettered by Microsoft oversight. Since previous media access has amounted to short controlled demos, this was effectively the first opportunity to assess what it would be like to own HoloLens.

By coincidence, the experience came just days after this tech reporter was able to spend significant time interacting with a development kit version of Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, one of three high-end virtual reality devices landing this year. While virtual reality seals off the user to teleport them to other worlds, augmented reality overlays interactive holograms over the real world.

Let’s cut to the key impressions.

Form Factor. HoloLens sits on your head like a 1.2-pound crown. Inside the clear plastic visor are projectors for the holograms, while on the outside sits a camera as well as sensors that determine your spacial position in a given room.

The most important thing to point out here is HoloLens is an untethered device whose technology resides inside the unit. An equally impressive AR goggle made by Meta is, by comparison, connected by a cable to a powerful computer. That also applies to all of the pricey VR devices coming out this year, which include Oculus, Sony Playstation VR and Sony Morpheus.

One cannot understate the importance of being untethered — no cables to trip over — and therefore the freedom of movement that AR lords over VR. True, VR immersion is wildly lifelike, but as a result many experts advise no more than 20 minutes a day of VR viewing. In contrast, I had HoloLens on my head for 90 minutes straight.

That led to one notable criticism: 1.2 pounds might not sound like a lot, but it feels like a little workout gym for your neck muscles after that amount of time. There’s little doubt that technological innovations may one day create AR headsets that feel like the glasses we wear today, and that’s the point where adoption might skyrocket.

User Interface. There are three ways to interact with HoloLens, air-touch (hold your arm out, point an index finger to the sky then down), glance (move your head, not your eyes, toward something you want then air-touch) and voice (here Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana does the honors, whether it’s asking for a weather update or to bring up a webpage on a hologram browser).

The simplicity of this interface trio is to be applauded, though again over time holding an arm rigidly outstretched proved a bit fatiguing. Perhaps HoloLens is secretly being positioned as a virtual computer-slash-workout device.

Looking through the headset, one could see the hotel room overlaid with a variety of holograms fixed in position. These ranged from a little dog in one corner to posters on the wall. The Microsoft team had cleverly positioned a virtual TV screen exactly over the screen of the room’s real television. Any of these holograms could be moved by the user by looking at them, pinching two fingers together and dragging them to a desired position in the room.

All of this was mastered fairly quickly, which says less about this reporter’s AR skills and more about the way HoloLens engineers thought through the UI challenges. The main critique here: one wished for a slightly larger field of view when watching video content in HoloLens.

Applications. The idea of HoloLens is to ultimately have it replace many of the objects we use to interact with our digital lives. Instead of reading up on the latest news on a PC or a tablet, in HoloLens you fire up a hologram browser, choose its size and navigate to a site by typing one character at a time (real keyboards connected to HoloLens by Bluetooth can also handle this task).

I typed in USA TODAY and was brought to our mobile site. While it was fascinating to see a story floating in space Minority Report style, navigating through the website proved problematic and, ultimately, I abandoned that quest.

Far more successful was accessing a holographic tour of Rome, which cleverly wove together a voice-over tour guide with real footage of the Eternal City interacting with historical animations. At one point, the floor dropped as the guide explained how in ancient times the city streets were many feet below today’s level. I could easily have spent an hour on this virtual historical tour.

Also of note was playing a video game that found me literally running around the room shooting aliens with my finger-turned laser gun. When they shot at me and I ducked, I could see the blasts just missed me. Here again the lack of tether exponentially expanded the interactive possibilities of HoloLens.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to experience was perhaps one of HoloLens greatest selling points, which is its collaborative power.

Multiple HoloLens wearers can be in the same room looking at the same virtual image, as was the case with the Case Western University professors who appeared at Build to show how they are teaching medical students about anatomy while all huddled around the same hologram.

There’s no doubting that virtual reality is a brilliant leap forward in our ability to fully teleport into other realms for either entertainment or instructional purposes. But what a few hours with HoloLens reveals is that augmented reality — once its form shrinks and its use-cases mushroom — is more likely to become woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter @marcodellacava

We test HoloLens, VR’s augmented cousin – USA TODAY

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