Virtual reality + augmented reality = new Microsoft HoloLens. HoloLens plays in the space between head-mounted VR and Google Glass-like augmented reality. Well, more of a mash-up really. Yeah, it’s got a certain geek quality, but so do the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Google Glass.
How will this compare to other recent VR and AR efforts? Let’s look at the virtual reality side first, partly because it’s been a personal interest for two decades. In particular, head-mounted VR vs. theater- or room-based VR. I had the luck of being a summer intern for UIC’s original CAVE immersive virtual reality theater way back in the 1990s (which only UIC themselves has since managed to top IMO). Long story short, the CAVE approach is a room with projected images or displays on walls surrounding you, and lightweight LCD shutter glasses then create the 3D effect (see also my then-retrospective 2010 and 2002 posts here and here). The newer CAVE2 uses an array of flat panel displays, but a similar “room” metaphor. It feels more natural than head-mounted approaches, but isn’t exactly portable or wallet-friendly. Separately, back in the 1990s I also got to intern for a while with a VA hospital R&D team building a head-mounted unit, to help with architecture design for the disabled. It was a beast – two small CRTs in the headset, and counterweights on the back so you didn’t get whiplash. But, it was much lower-cost to implement, required much less computational power, and designs could be iterated more quickly.
The downside to head-mounted VR approaches is that while immersive, they are also more intrusive. Between Cardboard and Rift, I have to say, Cardboard is “good enough” for many use cases, is less intrusive than Rift, and uses the smartphone you’re already carrying. If you get a decent $30 or so headset, it feels plenty solid, but weighs alot less and is definitely more portable. I have both at home, and while the Oculus is more capable, I’m more likely to throw on my ColorCross headset and play some quick Cardboard apps. And new startups like Pinc are going even further – when you’re not using your VR headset as a VR headset, it’s a smartphone case. There’s an old expression that the best camera is the one on you when you need to take a picture. I think VR will be a little like that – the best VR is the VR that is easiest to use (and to stop using).
None of these have the augmented reality and see-through capabilities described for Microsoft’s HoloLens. And the HoloLens will be less intrusive than typical head-mounted VR, but more so than a CAVE. But – it’s an awesome time if you’re into VR.
On the augmented reality side, I think the most amazing things from Microsoft’s promotion video (very first link in this post) are the fluidity, placement and perspective. In short – it’s convincing. That is, the “holographic” objects projected onto the HoloLens display appear to go in the right place in the user’s visual field, and obey the correct perspective rules, and it’s performant. Granted, it is a promotional video – but that’s alot of stuff to get right. Another key factor will be how long the average user can wear and use HoloLens before getting eye fatigue, headaches or simulation sickness.
One last thing : Minecraft figures prominently in the HoloLens video. I was very excited when Microsoft acquired Minecraft, for a variety of reasons, but this is even more promising. More on that in a separate post.