Microsoft’s Virtual. reality Headset, “HoloLens”

PROS

Highly immersive

Wireless

Easy to use

Cons

Tight fit

Extremely limited field of view

terrible image quality

Fewer than five months ago, we had the rare privilege to be among the first ever to try Microsoft’s HoloLens. Digital Trends’ editor-in-chief Jeremy Kaplan came away from the experience with his jaw on the floor, but there was a big fat caveat; what he used was not the sleek device Microsoft demonstrated. It was wired, it was big, and oddly placed fans blew hot air across his chin. The device seemed nowhere near ready.

It was no surprise to see HoloLens mentioned again at BUILD 2015. But what is surprising is how far Microsoft has come in just a few months, and how important the technology has become to its future. The janky prototype is gone, replaced by a fully functional and surprisingly intuitive headset that looks and works as seen in the company’s elaborate demos.

I must admit I was skeptical of the device back in January, and thought it might be a far-fetched prototype trotted out to grab eyeballs. Now that I’ve used HoloLens myself, my doubts have been quelled.

Microsoft let hundreds of people, both press and developers, use HoloLens at BUILD 2015, but that doesn’t mean the company has let its guard down. The carefully orchestrated demo took place in a hotel beside the main convention hall on floors rented out entirely by Microsoft. I, along with a pod of seven other journalists, was never left alone for the duration.

After being escorted to the proper floor in an elevator operated by Microsoft staff, we were asked to leave our bags and all electronics, including cell phones, in a locker. Like Jeremy five months before me, I had to make do with pen and paper. Smiling Microsoft PR flacks let us down a hall, past a few sturdy fellows in black semi-formal attire that looked ready to take down any runners or nab any hidden cameras.

Like the first prototype, the latest model requires an inter-pupil distance measurement before use. I was promised this shouldn’t be necessary with the final incarnation. I was also carefully instructed on how to handle the HoloLens; they’re apparently still a bit fragile, and while over 100 were brought to BUILD 2015, the company had no shortage of interested people to hustle through its tightly controlled experience.

And then it was time. I was lead to private room, where two Microsoft employees were waiting. One asked me to sit down on a bench and, with carefully practiced haste, helped me place the device on my head.

Let me be clear; HoloLens is exactly what you’ve seen in keynotes and previous demos. Its appearance is like a giant plastic hairband crossed with a pair of equally oversized sunglasses, but the sum of those two decidedly dorky parts is cooler than it sounds. That may be because, unlike Google Glass and other augmented reality devices seen before, HoloLens doesn’t try to pass itself off as something it’s not. Microsoft hasn’t shown a demo of it used outside a work or home environment for good reason. It isn’t meant for the street.

Microsoft HoloLens side angle Matt Smith/Digital Trends

It is wireless, though, and fit with surprisingly little adjustment. A knob on the back rotated to loosen or tighten the strap like in a bike helmet, and some jostling was required to place the holographic field of view in line with my eyes. That took no more than fifteen seconds, assisted by a calibration image Microsoft calls the “fitbox.” I fiddled with the knob until HoloLens was firmly in place, and that was it. I was fitted for holograms.

Microsoft had at least two different demos at BUILD 2015, but only one was shown to each attendee. For mine, I had the chance to play out a childhood fantasy: I became an architect. With a few clicks, my HoloLens shepherds activated my device, overlaying a 3D architectural model from a computer beside me onto a real, physical model in the room. The effect was indistinguishable from magic. One moment, I saw an empty plaza. The next, a building filled the space.

I’ve never used anything like it before, and neither have you.

Using a program called Sketchup, I manipulated the building like a wizard, stretching it, shrinking it, turning what was a tiny shop corner into a towering skyscraper with a swipe of the mouse. As in earlier demos, the mouse didn’t just live on the monitor of the computer running the demo, but could seamlessly transition into holographic space. And I do mean seamless. One moment the cursor was on the monitor, the next it was a hologram, positioned exactly where the monitor ended.

While impressive, this portion of the demo was simple, at least in terms of graphics. The building was only a collection of white blocks. Perhaps anticipating this disappointment, my assistants asked me to click on a tiny person projected into the physical model’s parking lot — and suddenly I was there, gazing up at my creation from ground level. While the imagined masterpiece was a 3D model with rather basic textures, its surroundings were taken from street-level photographic data, which made the experience utterly convincing.

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