Thanks to Luke McNeice (Innovation Lead at Kainos), I’ve temporarily got access to a physical HoloLens. This is a great opportunity to make my augmented reality projects…well, more real.

This post will be about my experience with a real device – initial impressions, app deployment, and a few concluding thoughts about what the community needs to do to make this technology succeed.

Unboxing

It’s obvious, even from the packaging, that this is a prestigious product from Microsoft. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, since this is aimed at developers – ultimately, developers are the people who will make this device a success. From the minute you open the box, you strongly remember that this is a $3,000 device.

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The carry pouch.
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The device in the unzipped pouch.

Getting started and fitting

There’s a handy little booklet in the pouch, which gives instructions on how to turn the HoloLens on and how to fit it. When I first saw the device I was pretty concerned that it was aimed at someone with a smaller head, but I needn’t have worried – the band which fits around your head extends a lot.

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The HoloLens, with the headband angled up.

I wear glasses, and the first time I put the device on I found it quite difficult to fit – I knew I wasn’t meant to touch the lens, which meant I had to hold the device using the side-bands. This doesn’t feel very safe and I was more than a bit nervous that I was going to drop it (fortunately I didn’t).

Turning the HoloLens on for the first time

The on/off switch is at the back of the device on the left hand side – the first time you power the device on, you have to press hold the button in for 3 seconds (though everytime after that it’s activated with a simple press.

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The micro USB port and the on/off switch.

The first thing I was greeted with was the ghostly floating text saying “Hello”, followed shortly by a message asking me to adjust the fitting of the HoloLens on my head so that I could see all four corners of a square. After that, Cortana automatically takes you through the set-up and calibration process, where you train the headset to recognise air-tap gestures, and the device shows you the “gesture windows”, also known as the HoloLens’s field of view.

During set-up, the only timezones available are American/Canadian zones, so be prepared for that.

Charging

If you need to charge the HoloLens, you can use a regular micro USB charger in the port, which is underneath the left hand leg of the device (shown above).

Deploying a UWP app from Visual Studio

Obviously you’ll need the software pre-requisites first – I’ve described these in a previous post. These include things like Visual Studio 2015, and Unity.

When you’re ready to deploy to the HoloLens, rather than the emulator, you’ll need to perform a few actions first:

  1. Open the Settings app on the HoloLens, go to the “Update” options, and enable Developer Mode on your HoloLens.
  2. From this screen, tap on the Pair button – a 6 digit PIN will be displayed. Make a note of this – you’ll need to enter it to Visual Studio later.
  3. In Visual Studio, select the Master x86 build configuration and choose Remote Machine. For Remote Machine, choose the HoloLens.
  4. When you deploy your first app, you’ll be challenged for a PIN – use the PIN you received in Step 2.

There’s more information from Microsoft on the set-up process at this link.

So what’s the experience like with the real device?

I want to give an honest review here – and whereas there’s a part of me wants to gush about how amazing some of the experience is (and it really is), at the same time I feel I have to draw more attention to the negative aspects of the experience – after all, these are the things that need to change for the next version to improve.

It’s often said that Microsoft need 3 versions of something to really get it right, and this is only Version 1 of the HoloLens – so I wasn’t that surprised to learn that whereas there are some really impressive features, there’s also some pretty serious limitations. You have to want to make the HoloLens work for you.

I found that I needed to carefully adjust the positioning of the HoloLens on my head to see the full field of view – and I have to do that each time I put the device on. It’s not a big inconvenience, just a small frustration. Again, this might be down to my glasses. I found that replacing the default nose-rest with the longer one included in the carry pouch improved my experience a lot.

Also, it’s pretty heavy – I didn’t notice it so much when I first put it on, but after an hour or so you really become aware that it’s giving your neck muscles a real workout.

But when I kept my head reasonably stable and I dealt with holograms which fitted inside the field of view, the experience was pretty amazing  – sometimes jaw droppingly amazing. The resolution and crispness of the graphics were superb. A good example is when browsing the internet with Edge (the MS browser) – resolution was sharp enough to easily read text.

The sound is excellent also. I could clearly hear from the speaker outputs above my ears. I’d like to experiment more with the 3d nature of the sound later.

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The spatial sound speakers are the red attachments under the HoloLens.

But I found it difficult to not feel a bit frustrated by when holograms were cropped, or disappeared from the view field. I wonder if some of this frustration came from my history of playing computer games, where the character’s HUD would typically have information projected constantly around the edges of the screen – the experience with the HoloLens is the opposite of this, where the edges of your field of view are what you would see regularly.

To be fair, it’s possible that I will get used to this cropped field of view, and learn how to keep my viewpoint from straying away from the centre. As I said previously, you have to want the device to work – it takes a little bit of patience.

This device is aimed at developers, and Microsoft must be hoping that the development community will start building a corpus of apps for the HoloLens. I guess by the time Version 2 rolls around – which might be released to a worldwide market, rather than just a developer release in North America – we’ll see some significant changes and improvements.

Conclusion

Microsoft have allowed a limited release of the HoloLens at the first point where they think developers will be able to build meaningful content. It’s not really consumer ready yet – problems with the field of view and weight are easy and obvious criticisms – and I think Microsoft know that. They want to avoid making the same mistake here as they did with the Kinect, where there was  a huge consumer uptake without anything that consumers could really use it for. This time, they’re asking the market first “what problems do you think this could solve, and can you build software to do that?”

For the HoloLens to succeed, developers have to keep building apps, writing libraries, and creating blog posts to encourage adoption. I think we’re still a while away from this being a mainstream device, but its success is in the community’s hands.