If there's one theme in gaming right now, it's virtual reality. You can't walk round a trade show like Gamescom, the Game Developers Conference or E3 without tripping over a wire attached to some VR headset. So it's brave of Microsoft to eschew the VR trend and come out with something completely different: HoloLens, a headset that augments reality, rather than blocking it out completely.
Only a few months after being unveiled, the first experiences for Microsoft's HoloLens AR headset are starting to be shown. We were able to go hands on with it at this year's E3 2015, the annual gathering of the world's biggest game makers in Los Angeles.
Essential reading: Best AR and VR headsets
A quick point on images - Microsoft reps were very strict with us and we weren't allowed to take any hands on pics of the HoloLens in action. If we are able to get any snaps of the HoloLens during the rest of our time at E3, we'll update this story.
HoloLens: Minecraft demo
Microsoft brought two HoloLens demos to the show. The first was Minecraft, showing how the most popular kids game in the world would work in HoloLens. At its press conference, a HoloLens user was able to see a Minecraft world on a table, while a second person was playing in that world on their computer.
The HoloLens wearer was able to manipulate the game world as it was being played – zooming in to see potential threats, dropping in items, and even creating lightning storms. It was very impressive from a technical level, and Minecraft is clearly matched to HoloLens' strengths.
There's also huge commercial potential for a HoloLens version of Minecraft – it's one of the most popular games in the world right now, and an exclusive version would likely be a system-seller for the device. So did our hands on live up to that mind-blowing demo?
HoloLens: Halo 5 demo
The second demo, and the one we got to actually try at E3, was based around one of Microsoft's more traditional gaming franchises: Halo.
Halo 5: Guardians is one of Microsoft's biggest games for Xbox One this year, and it wants to get E3 attendees playing the new Warzone game mode. But before they do though, they get a pre-mission briefing through the medium of HoloLens.
The experience starts outside the actual demo booth. A Microsoft employee comes along while you're in the queue and hands you a device that looks a bit like a pair of binoculars. When you hold them up to your eyes, you can see a bright light at the end. By focussing on this light, the technician can look down the other end of the device and measure the distance between your eyes.
This readout is the only bit of calibration needed for HoloLens, and it's a 10-second process at most. The number (ours was 63.0) was then written down onto an official-looking "Spartan Optic Calibration" card (Spartans being the soldiers in Halo), and then hung around your neck before you're allowed to go in.
Microsoft's demo booth had been mocked up to look like one of the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) military ships from Halo. We were then called up by UNSC officers to be fitted with a HoloLens. The process is very simple, and much like wearing a VR headset. Bands strap over and around your head and then tighten at the back.
A second officer entered our calibration number into a Microsoft Surface tablet, so that the Holographic images were displayed correctly for our eyes. You won't get this customisation on every VR headset but it's something Oculus has added to its final consumer version.
HoloLens: Briefed in augmented reality
With the headset fitted, the first task was to walk down the corridor to a waypoint that was floating in midair. This sort of task is a videogame tutorial staple, so we felt immediately comfortable following the order. When we walked down to the marker, the headset told us to turn left, where we met another UNSC officer who told us to look at the wall. On the wall, HoloLens made it appear as if a hatch was opening, allowing us to see outside the ship. Down below, UNSC vehicles went about their business, with a dropship taking off for the mission we were about to embark on.
Read this: Hands on with Oculus Touch at E3 2015
The main part of the HoloLens demo involved six people standing around a hexagonal table for a briefing on the mission. Viewing the table through the HoloLens, we could see a tiny Spartan soldier called Commander Palmer, who talked us through the game mode we were about to play. It took a few minutes to explain that 24 players are split into two, competing against each other and the AI to take control of bases.
All of this information was conveyed through animations of the Spartans, enemies, worlds, ships and other objects and people in Halo that we were about to encounter. The animations appeared to each person round the table as if Commander Palmer was briefing them directly, although of course this is the illusion that HoloLens was creating. The graphics were simple but impressively animated, with all of the polish you'd expect from a Halo game.
HoloLens: Design and fit
The HoloLens headset is light and comfortable, much more so than most VR headsets. At a hot and uncomfortable trade show like E3, it can be quite claustrophobic putting on a headset like the Sony Project Morpheus, especially with so many cables and controllers tying you down.
By comparison, HoloLens is incredibly freeing – it's wireless, lightweight and doesn't block you off from the outside world. Quite the opposite, in fact – you can still see the outside world completely, and there are no headphones to wear as the headset pumps audio out via built-in speakers.
HoloLens: AR display
Our HoloLens experience wasn't perfect, however. The big issue is that HoloLens only augments the centre portion of the vision, not your whole periphery. Imagine a postcard-sized view in the centre of what you're looking at and you get the idea.
This means that if you tilted your head to the side, you would cut off half of the briefing happening on the table. In fact, you had to make sure your view was pretty much centred at all times, or else you wouldn't not see everything happening on the table. We never expected the fully immersive world of VR but bear this limitation in mind when watching demos and looking at screenshots – it's not quite as Microsoft will have you believe from the promo videos. Yet.
HoloLens: Early verdict
After the briefing, we went into another room and played Halo 5 on the Xbox One (which was awesome, although perhaps only because our team won). The HoloLens demo was short and highly controlled, and we didn't get to interact with it in any way, which is a shame given that E3 is a gaming conference.
However, the Halo 5 HoloLens demo was a really interesting and highly polished look at the hardware and the potential it holds for gaming. And it's worth noting that any subdued reports coming from people who have tried out HoloLens shouldn't be taken as gamers and geeks damning the tech.
This is very early days for HoloLens and we don't expect to see a consumer release until 2016 or 2017. Before then Microsoft plans to get HoloLens into the hands of developers and designers to see what they can do with it.
From this short encounter with HoloLens, we can't wait to see more.
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