(Pocket-lint) - Microsoft HoloLens is the company's stab at delivering what it believes is the next big thing. Rather than go down the virtual reality route favoured by Oculus, HTC, Samsung, Google and others, Microsoft believes augmenting our reality is the future.
But can a reality that is augmented deliver an experience that is better than a virtual one, and what is it like to use? First experienced by Pocket-lint at its launch in 2015 at Microsoft's Build developer conference, we've come back for a second go with the hardware a year later - at Build 2016 - to see how the hardware and experience has changed.
HoloLens: Headset design
In comparison to virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the Microsoft HoloLens is fairly light and diminutive. That's not to say you are going to enjoy wearing it for any length of time, but it is certainly not as isolating as a VR headset.
The HoloLens device is easy to place on your head and doesn't come with cables coming out the back. That freedom of not being tethered to your computer by an umbilical cord is not only noticeable, but the most compelling feature of the device. You are free to get on the ground to look at things from a different angle, or just walk around the room without that underlying fear that you are about to trip over a cable dangling from the back of your head.
The HoloLens headset itself is fairly basic it is design. There is an adjusting back strap that works in a similar way to a bicycle helmet allowing you to dial in a snug fit, volume controls on right-hand side and brightness controls on the left.
Two speakers are placed just above your ears provide the sound and save you from having to wear additional headphones.
Unlike Gear VR or Google Glass there are no complicated swipe commands to learn. HoloLens is controlled by gestures with your hands, your eyes, and your voice.
The core of the engineering magic is at the front of the unit which can make the device feel a little front heavy in the same way head torches can. It can be pushed forward (away) or back (closer) to adjust the comfort and the visibility of the display. It also means glasses wearers are happily accommodated.
The entire weight rests on your forehead, the screen hovers over your face rather than resting on the bridge of your nose. In our two demo experiences we found ourselves fiddling and adjusting the headset a lot. Oculus and Vive both have fabric straps that go around and over the top of your head, an although the weight issue with HoloLens isn't anywhere near the same as found in VR headsets, a strap would certainly help. The other help would be to shift as much as the computing hardware to the back of your head rather than the front. A good head torch has the batteries at the back of your head, and we can't help feel Microsoft should take the same approach here to balance it out.
The main display is projected on the inside of a curved wraparound glass that covers most of your face. Like VR you aren't going to look cool, but at least you can see when people are laughing at you.
HoloLens: The AR display
If you watch any of the visual demos showcased by Microsoft you get the feeling that the entire world around you is augmented, coffee tables become gaming landscapes, virtual cadavers are waiting to be dissected, and far off planets are ready to be explored.
In reality, and rather disappointingly, the screen is really only displayed on a faction of the wraparound glass you see in the hardware.
Unlike VR, you don't get the augmented 3D objects within your complete field of vision. Like Google Glass in a way, you are faced with a screen that hovers in front of your face rather than wraps around the entire visor. This means that tall objects in a room can only be viewed in segments as you move your head around. It's like watching everything through a letterbox. The picture above is what we were able to see when seeing the solar system demo, compared to what Microsoft wants you to believe you'll see as in the lead picture at the top of this article.
Stand back and you get to see more of the augmented reality in front of you, go close and your field of view is dramatically cropped.
The screen itself is crisp and clear, easily viewable in the environment we used it in, although we should add that was a fairly dark room with no natural light. Information is displayed on the screen and sensors monitor your eye movements so the system doesn't get confused. Turning the brightness down does blur the lines of when the screen starts and stops, but then you lose detail because you can't see everything especially when in a brighter environment.
If there is disappointment to be had, it is the size of the projected screen. In our two demoes it ruined a lot of the wow factor and the experience. For this to really work, and really wow, it needs to be fully immersive, and at the moment it is not.
Unlike VR that requires you to hold paddles or controllers to control the action, HoloLens is controlled by simply using your voice, eyes, and hands, or more specifically, a pinch of your finger and thumb in the air in front of you.
That, as you can imagine, frees the experience even more. There are no complicated controls to learn, and because the unit tracks your line of sight, your eyes are the controller of a virtual cursor. In the case of our demo that was represented by a fixed spot that you control by looking at what you wanted to action and then pinching your fingers, or as Microsoft calls it an "air tap" to action it or simply barking orders with set commands.
The system is incredibly responsive and the tracking spot on. There was no point where we felt we were having to wait for something to happen or for the system to catch up. This is fluid computing at its finest and works very well whether you are "actioning", taking a picture, or firing a ball at a robotic avatar floating over someone else's head.
HoloLens: Software demos
Microsoft has been keen to show off various demos of HoloLens ranging from using it as a medical training tool to be able to peel away at parts of the body to see where specific organs sit or nerve patterns form, to giving one to NASA for astronauts to use on the International Space Station.
For the Xbox Spring Showcase we played with Halo 5 on HoloLens and for Build 2016, Microsoft's hands-on demos included a one and a half hour coding and experience demo dubbed the HoloLens Academy, and a partnership with NASA allowing participants to experience Mars.
HoloLens: Halo 5 demo
After agreeing to leave our cameras and phones in our bags - hence no actual photography - we were lead into a holding area designed to look like the inside of a starship. After having our eyes measured for the device we were soon to don it, and thematically Microsoft had done a cracking job. Even the HoloLens units were painted a different colour and styled more like Master Chief's helmet.
We had to then stand on a marker and wait for the unit to kick in. When it did there was a waypoint within our field of vision, seemingly placed 1.5 metres away. We walked towards it and suddenly an arrow pointed us to the left.
Inside the next chamber was a hexagonal briefing table - again sticking with the starship theme - and our briefing begun - in 3D and augmented in front of us much like the Death Star briefing in Star Wars.
Unfortunately, because you only see a small window of the hologram - a rectangular view with cut off points left, right, top and bottom - we had to keep looking up and down to get the entire 3D briefing map in view. That said though, the 3D models of foes and ships we would face in the coming game element looked great. And they were clear and well defined.
We also liked the graphical pointer that guided us to a comms chip (USB stick) sticking out of our part of the briefing table.
HoloLens: Destination Mars demo
Destination: Mars, will open at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida this summer, allowing you to "visit" several sites on Mars. Using real imagery from the Curiosity Mars Rover you'll also get to see Buzz Aldrin - the Apollo 11 astronaut - as a holographic tour guide. The idea is to give space centre guests a "glimpse of Mars as seen by mission scientists," according to NASA.
The demo is clever, but hardly a good way to show off the full capability of HoloLens. It delivers an experience more like virtual reality and doesn't really benefit from the augmented that HoloLens provides.
The demo consists of you in a black room of about 40m2, walking around discovering the Martian landscape. The freedom to walk around is the key selling point here and really plays to the HoloLens' strength of being wireless, but it is an experience that would have been better suited to virtual reality and in particular the HTC Vive.
Having experienced Everest through Vive previously, it is a far more immersive experience than that of Destination: Mars.
To get any sense of immersion with HoloLens we had to stand back from the action. To get Buzz Aldrin in full frame (head to toe) for example, we had to stand about 10m back.
HoloLens: The HoloLens Academy
The HoloLens Academy demo saw us "loosely" code our way through creating an app. The app in question involved creating an "energy hub" that we were able to place anywhere within our immediate vicinity and then interact with it from anywhere in the room. As the demo progressed we introduced virtual avatars that sat on the shoulders of other HoloLens users in the demo with us, and eventually use small metal looking balls to destroy them, before ending up destroying the "energy hub" to reveal a secret base that descended into the floor.
The clever part is the headset's ability to place and track objects regardless of where you are, and that the experience can be shared over a number of headsets at the same time.
Although simple, it shows the huge potential for HoloLens, certainly in the collaboration space, but also in overlaying augmented experiences over everyday objects.
You can quickly imagine wearing this to understand how something needs to be fixed, or as in the case of the medical cadaver, where organs actually sit within the body.
If Microsoft can solve the small screen concerns and make this truly immersive then the possibilities would and could be endless.
There is no denying that what Microsoft has created is impressive, but there is also no denying that it is incredibly early days for the company's augmented reality device.
As it stands there are so many barriers stopping the HoloLens becoming an instant success, that we suspect we are a good 3 to 5 years away from it becoming something you'll be putting on your Christmas list.
For us the concept is sound, the technology works, and we like the freedom of movement and lack of controllers, but the hardware is not currently up to the job. The small screen really does hamper the experience, as does the goofy looking hardware.
There's also the fact that a year in the experience doesn't seem to have moved forward as much as we would have expected, certainly when compared to the development of HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.
The Microsoft HoloLens very much reminds us of VR headsets in the early days, the promise is there, but the reality is still out of reach.
At $3,000 for a developer unit, we suspect that this will follow the same path of Google Glass in terms of "publicity" and interest. Companies will dabble, consumers will be excited from afar, and a few will get to try it at places like the Kennedy Space Center. Microsoft's task will be to make sure the HoloLens doesn't befall the same fate.
For consumers this is a one to watch, but don't worry about starting to save anytime soon.