Announced in January, Hololens is Microsoft’s entry into the growing arena of immersive interactive technologies. It’s a self-contained, standalone headset, featuring two transparent HD holographic lenses. When you put the headset on, the device is capable of projecting computer graphics into your field of vision – so it looks like these digital objects are part of your real-world. This seamless integration of graphical elements into your normal view differentiates the technology from virtual reality heads ets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, which immerse you in a digitally constructed world. Confused? Um, the coming world of immersive entertainment is maybe not for you.
“We knew from the beginning that Hololens would need to have an understanding of the user’s real environment – we knew it would make the gameplay unique for each person, based on where they play,” explains Microsoft’s corporate vice-president Kudo Tsunoda. “However, as we started building more character-driven narrative experiences, we didn’t fully understand the level of emotional engagement and intensity that you can create with somebody by having the characters and the story play out like right there in their real world.
“One of the great things about gamers is that you get so attached to your favourite characters and stories. So when you start seeing those characters coming to sit down on your sofa or interacting with different parts of your house, there’s a level of immediacy and intimacy that goes beyond anything you can experience while sitting in front of a television screen.”
This becomes obvious in Minecraft demo. The program projects a 2D menu screen onto a wall, which lets user select a Minecraft world and load it up. Then, you can look at the table behind and ask the application to place the world right there. Suddenly, the surface of the table seems to drop down, and out of it rises an entire Minecraft landscape, jutting up into the room, looking as solid and colourful as a Lego model. You can walk around it and peer down at the sheep milling about; You can look into the windows of a house. One of the demo staff is controlling a character and you can watch him run and leap about the scenery. With a series of simple voice commands, You can ask the camera to track the character’s movement so you can look in right behind him and follow his actions more closely.
Cleverly, Hololens also comes with an array of physical commands, like a touchscreen phone. To move the map around, you simply make a pinching motion in front of your eyes and then move your hand – the Minecraft map moves with you, up and down or side to side. If you pull it up high enough, you can see the subterranean environment, the tunnels and caverns, the flowing streams of lava. You can ask for a marker to be placed where you are looking, so interesting spots can be explored later, you can even request for a signpost to be placed in specific areas, and then “write” a message on it using a speech-to-text interface.
It’s rather beautiful, and it suggests that Hololens could become a creative tool, allowing gamers to easily modify and create their own levels. “Most people don’t have an inherent understanding of how to create in 3D – it can be very complicated on 2D screens,” says Tsunoda. “This is one of the places that Hololens and gaming come together in a very interesting way – allowing a lot more user-generated content, not only as part of the gameplay but also involving players in the creation of the game and how the gameplay evolves. I think we’re going to see more communities adding to and customising the games they play. That will be very cool.”
The main downside right now, is the restricted field of view that the graphical elements can appear in. There is a rectangle in your immediate vision, where digital content is visible – look away from that, and you lose it. Unlike virtual reality technology that completely surrounds your vision, Hololens is only active in this one central sweet spot, it’s not peripheral.
Other than that, three key questions remain: price, release date, battery life. Microsoft is saying that Hololens will appear “in the Windows 10” timeframe, so late summer or early autumn, then.
But clearly Hololens is a fascinating new technology, not just for games, but for many areas of science, education and the arts. It will be interesting to see more from rival mixed reality solution Magic Leap which is being backed by Google; it will also be intriguing to discover what happens when these augmented reality solutions go up against the virtual reality visions of Oculus, Sony and HTC.