Your phone or tablet might already have augmented reality capabilities, but the concept of AR doesn’t mean much to the average person right now: Apart from a couple of games and apps, AR is far from mainstream. Surprisingly, Microsoft is taking steps to change that, as it recently added HoloLens AR headset demos to its retail stores, letting mall shoppers go hands-on with a potentially transformative technology.
I say “potentially” because many companies — Microsoft, Google, and Apple among them — expect that augmented reality is going to be a big deal some day, but the hardware is currently stuck in a rut. As I explained last month, the key problem is that there’s no affordable, wearable hardware in the marketplace. HoloLens is wearable, but at $3,000 or more per headset, it’s not affordable. On the other hand, Apple and Google sell affordable AR devices, but none of them are wearable.
If you want to experience AR on a device you own today, Apple and Google expect you to hold up your phone or tablet, then look at the screen for a real-time augmented view through the camera. With Pokémon Go or a mapping app, you might see a virtual monster or location marker on the sidewalk in front of you. Open Snapchat, Apple’s Animoji, or Samsung’s AR Emoji and switch to the front-facing camera, then you’ll see a cartoony mask, animal, or face superimposed on top of yours.
Until recently, trying an AR headset like HoloLens required some serious cash or a visit to one of the relatively few retail locations with AR demo hardware. But now that Microsoft is facing a real competitor in Magic Leap, which says that it will soon demo its $2,295 One Creator Edition headset in select AT&T stores, the two-year-old HoloLens is suddenly coming out to play.
Rather than doing HoloLens demos inside the store, Microsoft employees set up a lightly fenced demo area right in the middle of my local mall’s walkway. They had at least two HoloLens units and multiple employees trained on using the device. There’s no sales pitch involved — it’s just an opportunity for visitors to see how the technology works.
I won’t tell you that I was either thrilled or blown away by the HoloLens demo, because it was actually a distracting and odd way to experience AR. The tutorial was blessedly short: Users are shown the two key ways they’ll interact with the hand gesture-sensing interface — “bloom” open your hand to open a menu; pinch your fingers to select an item like tapping — and then get to put on the headset and try a couple of demo apps.
Thanks to the bright mall lighting and people constantly walking by, HoloLens’ small, ghostly viewing area is particularly hard to see. It appears as a tiny window floating within your field of view, and it’s hard for anything in that window to make much of a positive impression. That’s doubly true when both you and the gesture recognition system are struggling to recognize menu navigation commands against constantly moving backgrounds.
The mall demos I saw didn’t really show off conventional “this object looks like it’s actually popping out of the floor” or “here’s a sign pointing you towards the store” AR, either. I had to keep moving my head to see enough of a moving video map of the solar system to actually select something for more information, and the colors were so desaturated that nothing looked particularly real.
But as the store employee pointed out, everything from the computer to the screen and gesture tracking interface is entirely built into the HoloLens headset — it’s fully wireless and completely portable. Contrast that with Magic Leap One, where you wear AR goggles and a belt-mounted computer, then carry a remote control in one hand. Microsoft’s screen, processing, and control technologies may feel a generation or two behind state of the art, but at least everything necessary fits inside one piece of hardware.
So for AR fans, the good news is that more people are already getting exposed to the technology thanks to Microsoft’s demos, and popular interest in AR will only increase once Magic Leap One starts making its way into AT&T’s stores. The bad news is that between the pricing and demo experiences, customers probably won’t be buying either of these headsets anytime soon. At the Microsoft Store I visited, people were a lot more interested in VR than AR.
Despite the fact that HoloLens units were on display in the middle of a public mall area, people instead gravitated to the store’s interior for a demo of HTC’s Vive with the popular game Beat Saber. Visitors didn’t seem to mind waiting around, signing a waiver, or enduring a longer tutorial for the VR experience, none of which were needed to try HoloLens. They whipped out cell phones to take photos and videos of people using the VR gear, while people who walked by the HoloLens demo outside seemed to be mostly puzzled by whatever was going on.
AR glasses still have a very long way to go before they’re mainstream — certainly longer than VR, it seems — yet I’m hopeful that the upcoming HoloLens 2 will bridge most of the gap. Regardless, getting AR headsets into public use across the country is a good next step towards making the technology actually transformative, rather than just a tech company and venture capitalist pipe dream.