The most glaring drawback to Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles

The future is (almost) here.
The future is (almost) here.
Image: Alice Truong/Quartz
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Last week, Microsoft showed off such an impressive demo of HoloLens, its yet-to-be-released augmented-reality goggles, that I—generally a deliberately late technology adopter who’s often skeptical of frivolous devices—actually thought to myself: “Hmm, I see the appeal.” But after donning the headset, it’s apparent there’s a big gap between Microsoft’s vision for HoloLens and what it can actually do.

The video below shows the on-stage demo that took place April 29 during the keynote of Microsoft’s Build conference. Alex Kipman, a technical fellow at Microsoft who oversaw the development of Kinect and HoloLens, said the camera was rigged in such a way that the audience could see what the wearer was experiencing.

However, this is the third person’s perspective. You never actually see what Darren, the wearer, sees, which is much, much different. When trying on the headset—which the folks at Microsoft remind me is a pre-production unit and subject to change before it launches—I noticed one major limitation: the field of view. (Microsoft has yet to say when HoloLens will go on sale or how much it will cost.)

hololens microsoft ar
Profile of the HoloLens
Image: Alice Truong/Quartz

Currently, the layer of augmented reality (what Microsoft calls holograms) appears within a small box in the center of the display—far from an immersive experience. Think of it as a window: You can only see holograms through this window, but everything peripheral to it is plain old reality. It’s sort of like the AR version of tunnel vision. And because this window is so small, the only way to get a full view of these holograms is by changing your perspective—in other words, moving your head—something Darren clearly isn’t doing in the demo. My experience made clear that the demo is not a reflection of HoloLens’s current capabilities but rather Microsoft’s hopes for HoloLens.

That’s not to say that HoloLens is a complete disappointment. It’s an incredibly new experience—much different from peering through Google Glass or Oculus Rift—and some features genuinely surprised me and challenged how I view computing. During my demo, which focused on HoloLens’s application for architecture and construction, I was able to move the mouse cursor off the computer screen and onto the holographic rendering, which I could modify directly with a few clicks.

For architecture firms, this would allow the ability to iterate and see changes in real time, rather than rely on costly 3D models, which can take weeks to build. And because Microsoft is marketing HoloLens as a business tool rather than a consumer product, it’s possible the goggles will take off in a way that Google Glass never did. But as it stands, the experience of using HoloLens is not quite what Microsoft makes it out to be.