I tested Microsoft's HoloLens and the future is not for now

I tested Microsoft's HoloLens and the future is not for now

VIDEO-The Figaro was able to test Microsoft’s augmented reality headset, which mixes virtual holograms and real world. Our first impressions, between headaches and technological prowess.

“Do you see a watch?”I squint, but I don’t see a watch. A Microsoft employee is busy around my face. The American company invited me to try the Hololens, its augmented reality headset. Unveiled last year, the device aims to mix real and virtual, using a system of holograms projected on tinted glasses. So here I am equipped with more than 500 grams of cutting-edge technology. I am informed that I must see a (fake) Swiss watch placed on a (real) table. At the moment, I mostly feel an onset of migraine. “And now is it better?”inquires my host. I shake my head. The helmet glides pitifully over my nose.

The HoloLens is the latest attempt to create the “glasses of the future”. Other giants of new technologies have rubbed it before Microsoft, with more or less success. Google presented in 2012 its Google Glass, temples of connected glasses, tactile and surmounted by a small screen. After a lot of expectations, the device finally disappointed journalists and developers. Google Glass was ugly and especially impractical. Just as unsightly, the Oculus Rift has the advantage of being technically bluffing. The company that develops this virtual reality headset, Oculus, was bought in 2014 by Facebook for $ 2 billion, causing the market to runaway. HTC, Samsung or Sony have gone for it. To hear them, the future will be made of men and women wearing ridiculous helmets but navigating with gusto between the virtual and the real.

An impressive result

In this ocean of headsets, Microsoft seeks to distinguish itself. The HoloLens is not a virtual reality device, but augmented. Thanks to special lenses, it is able to display holograms in front of its user’s eyes, while allowing him to see what is happening around him. The headset recognizes certain hand gestures, analyzes the architecture of the room and adapts to them. It is not necessary to connect it to a computer. The HoloLens can make a 3D watch appear on your table, display a Skype window on your wall or make a virtual dinosaur run on your carpet. At least, if everything goes according to plan.

Last Monday, Microsoft invited a dozen European journalists to London to try the HoloLens. The meeting was organized on the occasion of the opening of sales of the helmet in six new markets, including France. Unlike the Oculus Rift and its colleagues, which are oriented towards video games and entertainment, the HoloLens is more focused on the professional market. The various test scenarios that were proposed to me by Microsoft were mostly related to the world of the company: realize an interactive presentation in hologram, observe a modeling of the human body in 3D, chat with several colleagues on Skype …

The result is sometimes impressive. I manage to repair a faulty electrical installation with the help of an accomplice who talks to me live on Skype. He sees my every move thanks to a camera located near my eye. The conversation window follows me on my travels, from the living room to the electrical circuit breaker. My interlocutor surrounds the objects I need as the operation progresses. It is as if someone is drawing on the wall using a large felt-tip pen. It took me about ten seconds to learn the gestures recognized by the HoloLens. We close the index finger and thumb more or less long according to the desired effect. A sharp snap to nod, fingers glued to move a virtual object. For a moment, I forget that I wear a heavy helmet on my head. Everything seems natural to me.

The “Air Tap”, one of the gestures recognized by the HoloLens

This pleasure is unfortunately short-lived. Most of the time, the HoloLens is uncomfortable. The helmet can be adjusted on two levels: thanks to a strap worn around the forehead and by placing the lenses more or less close to his eyes, for example to let his glasses pass. I tried five different models. The first, produced before the marketing of the kit for developers, did not fit on my head. After tightening its strap to the maximum, without success, I ended up holding the device at arm’s length to finish the demonstration. I had a little more luck with the following helmets. But, after a few minutes of use, they all eventually slipped out of my nose, forcing me to readjust the device to properly see the holograms. I tried to solve my problem by tightening the strap around my forehead as much as possible. I only got headaches there, as if I were wearing a hat far too small.

A problem of comfort

I talked with several Microsoft employees about my problem. One suggested that my posture was not good. Another that helmets had already been used by many people, causing deformation of the straps. One last person mentioned my long hair as the source of the problem. This last explanation caught my attention. After some research on the Internet, I found several people with long hair complaining of similar difficulties. This detail is not trivial: it even made my experience very painful. I was frustrated and annoyed. I had before my eyes the future of new technologies, without having quite access to them. The answer given to me is all the more surprising since the inventor of the HoloLens, Alex Kipman, has long hair himself. But the first people to suffer from this defect will be women.

Alex Kipman, inventor of the HoloLens BRET HARTMAN/AFP

However, I was reassured on another point. HoloLens does not give nausea. I’m prone to motion sickness, and the virtual reality headsets I’ve tried so far have all made me sick. This is not the case with the HoloLens. Its transparent lenses let you see the environment around you. This is a crucial element to avoid motion sickness. The latter is usually created by a conflict between what one feels and what one experiences: if my body is motionless in a car, but my brain records that I am in motion, I can quickly be sick. The HoloLens avoids this problem. The headset also takes care to measure the gap between the eyes of its users, in order to offer the sharpest possible images, and therefore avoid visual fatigue, which is another recurring problem of virtual reality. For my part, nothing to complain about the quality of holograms. But over time, the eyes get tired anyway. I came out of my two-hour test with dry eyes and an onset of migraine, similar to if I had watched TV too long and too closely.

The devices I tested on Tuesday were “developers kit”. These are editions reserved for people who want to create applications for the HoloLens, which will never be commercialized. It is normal that these helmets still have many defects. The test cases are a bit rigid and do not allow to take much freedom. Some holograms would disappear when I tried to move to see them more closely or from another angle. The field of view is relatively small. If the holograms are too large, they are cut in half. We are far from promotional videos where a person makes virtual objects appear all around him. The HoloLens currently only understands English. French accent strongly discouraged.

HoloLens has flaws, but also many qualities. It has yet to find its usefulness. I was convinced by my use of Skype, much less by the possible usefulness of creating an interactive hologram presentation. The HoloLens will certainly improve, in the same way that the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality headsets needed several tests before being released. In the meantime, the future will have to wait.

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