I’m standing in a fake, Ikea-style model living room six or so floors above Microsoft’s Fifth Avenue flagship store with a $3,000 face computer strapped to my head, and I’m sweating...a lot. An overly eager Microsoft employee is cheering me on as I run around the living room — sheepishly at first, and then with elementary school gusto — dodging, ducking. All around me, pixelated robot bugs are crawling out of the walls, and I am killing them off with some kind of laser cannon. So far, I’m doing OK, though I've clearly made at least one significant tactical error: I forgot to take off my jacket, and now I'm soaking wet. The future, it appears, is kind of sweaty.
Truthfully, it never occurred to me to remove my jacket, because I didn't expect much from Microsoft's HoloLens demo, which, starting today, will be open to registered developers who visit the New York flagship store. I'd seen earlier presentations on it and was relatively certain I'd shuffle about while some MS Paint graphics piddled around in my field of vision and a demo dude followed me around holding up cables like a bridesmaid holding up a train. That’s because before the demo, HoloLens, a pricey and as-of-yet-unreleased augmented reality headset that overlays graphics onto the physical world, felt like one more ambitious project destined to disappoint. It seemed an attempt to lasso something amazing from the future and, with brute force, haul it into the present, and, as often happens in that process, most of the magic is stripped off, leaving you with something expensive, unwieldy, and ultimately a little bit useless (see: Google Glass). Also: It's built by Microsoft.
But here I am, standing crouched in the corner of Ikea Room, cowering before a horrific Queen Robot Bug that's birthing irate baby bugs with alarming frequency. I am utterly immersed. My sopping brow is almost certainly bad news for the $3,000 worth of hardware strapped to my face, but I don't care. I am locked in a life-or-death struggle to murder space bugs.
This is undoubtedly very good news for Microsoft, which is betting on HoloLens as its ticket back to relevancy. And that makes sense, considering that augmented reality is perhaps one of the most futuristic-sounding, edge-cutting projects a company can undertake — save making a car fly or basically anything Elon Musk dreams up. Merge virtual with actual and you’ve successfully dropped a small piece of the future squarely into the lap of the present. There's just one problem: We’re not quite there yet. But as Microsoft showed me this week, we’re quite a bit closer than you think.
And so, here are some of the things I was thinking about — the good and the bad — while staring into the future:
You can augment reality, but you can't always see all of it. Before putting on a HoloLens headset, you’ll have to measure the distance between your pupils (this is standard operating procedure in the future, so just roll with it, OK?). There’s an orientation video to watch and a bunch of instructions for wearing it properly, though I ignored all of this. Turns out that was a bad idea. The HoloLens may sit mere inches from your eyes, but the canvas it projects into your retinas is still limited. In other words, HoloLens does not extend through your entire field of vision. If you’re not careful, things can dart out of sight, causing you to crane your neck and contort your body into ghastly, inhuman positions. And while this may sound like unimpressed whining, the hard truth is that this undermines the experience just enough to make the headset feel like a work in progress rather than flawless tech. While trying to build a cartoon aquarium in a 3D design demo, I was routinely tucking my chin into my neck while shifting my pupils toward the sky and bending backwards at the waist. The result: an unchoreographed Frankensteinian triple-chinned hell limbo.
Soon you will run into a table and hurt yourself. Microsoft has successfully stripped HoloLens of any and all wires, making it an immersive experience that is by no means as spatially alienating as full VR. But it's still a bit disorienting distinguishing real physical objects from software-generated ones in the same room. Simply put: There’s no way that normal humans in cluttered living rooms aren’t going to straight-up run into walls/stray toys/lamps/other humans playing a first-person alien bug shooter game.
Holy shit, scanning the topography of a living room is boss as hell! Before two of my three demos, I was told to stand near the center of the room and execute a 360-degree turn to scan the room. As I did, a Tron-esque wire-frame grid pattern appeared over everything I saw. This isn’t a HoloLens feature, it’s a calibration process, but I can say without any exaggeration whatsoever that it was — for lack of technical terminology — fucking awesome. In these fleeting moments, machine and man were one. It felt like the future had reached out, located the 12-year-old Charlie who lurks somewhere inside me — the one who aspired to be a T-800 from Terminator 2 — and told him “Anything’s possible!” before giving him a high-five and vanishing into thin air.
This machine could change how some of us work and learn. At one point during my HoloLens demo, I was given a virtual brush. Also: a Star Wars X-Wing and a bucket of hot-pink paint with which to slather it. As I crouched low, applying some fuchsia to the ship’s underbelly, the design potential for this face computer quickly became apparent. Volvo and NASA, who both have partnerships with HoloLens, seem to agree. Later, when HoloLens summoned a high-resolution 3D moving map of the solar system before my eyes, I found myself staring in wonder at Pluto’s deeply peculiar orbit and shimmering asteroid belts engaged in an interstellar synchronized swim. How much more attention would I have paid in third-grade science class if planets were literally whirring past my face?
PowerPoint? Seriously? The final HoloLens demo of the day was a pitch for a hypothetical luxury watch. It was done with what was essentially a next-generation version of PowerPoint. A gorgeous Swiss watch appeared before me and split seconds later burst open into a three-dimensional cross section — its parts and gears suspended as if in zero gravity. Voiceover narration told me that such HoloLens visualizations will engage audiences like never before and determine what’s most interesting to them by tracking eye movement — provided they’re outfitted with the headsets. Presenters can see what people are looking at in real time, allowing them to adjust their presentations based on what the audience cares about. This sounds like a future-of-work nightmare scenario.
This sweaty future sure is going to be expensive. The HoloLens I tried, which will ship to developers (or any normal human who wants to shell out for a developers kit), will cost $3,000. The consumer version, which doesn't really even have a road map for launch yet, will presumably cost less, but unconfirmed rumors have it costing far more than an Xbox. “That’s a full Windows 10 computer,” my guides kept saying, pointing at my head, as if to remind me that this stuff isn’t cheap. And when we’re talking about getting a peek at the future, the price tag is important. Compare HoloLens to Google’s VR box, Cardboard, which the company sent out to over 1 million people last month in partnership with the New York Times. Augmented reality’s future will not be quite so evenly distributed — not at first, anyway.
Microsoft’s got something in HoloLens, and it knows it. And it’s working hard to make sure they don’t blow it by the time the product makes it onto the faces of normal living room dwellers across the world (see: Google Glass). As a result, throughout the demo, everyone was running on a rigorously rehearsed script and demos were much more like a belted-in ride at an amusement park than a casual introduction. “Cool, right?” the Microsoft reps said with a detectable twinge of anxiety in their voices.
Yes! Of course! Anyone with a pulse is going to think that the HoloLens is, at least, a little bit cool. But it’s this anxiety, one fed by a conga line of failed products — from Zune to the disastrous Kin phone — that belie some of HoloLens’ promise. And yet, no matter how exciting this thing might be, it feels almost wrong to suggest that HoloLens will deliver on its promise. I mean, how crazy would it be if the next blow-your-head-off tech came from Microsoft?!
Like so much in tech these days (AI, self-driving cars, the Hyperloop), HoloLens occupies a peculiar purgatory between the ambitious and seemingly unlikely and that which is truly transformative. HoloLens, and the future it promises, isn’t quite there yet, but it hints at something great. Something that gets — and keeps — you sweaty.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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