I have the pleasure of being a graduate student at a school that has partnered with Microsoft to use, and build software for, their augmented reality tech known as HoloLens. This year for Halloween, faculty and students put together an augmented reality haunted house. Since I had yet to try out HoloLens, I was eager to attend. Unfortunately, I had also just watched a certain episode of Black Mirror’s newest season.

Netflix’s Black Mirror S3E2: Playtest focuses on the idea of an AR haunted house and is utterly terrifying.

I won’t keep you in suspense, it wasn’t actually scary, unlike that particular episode. However, it was very cool and I learned a lot about HoloLens. Here are some of my thoughts from my hands-on experience:

The Headset

For such a sophisticated and powerful piece of hardware, I immediately found the headset easy to put on and comfortable. Using a dial at the back, I adjusted it to fit snugly on my slightly-larger-than-average head. Throughout the entire experience it remained in place and didn’t cause me any irritation. Since there were no wires, it was pretty easy to forget that I was wearing a headset at all. Some people even wore it over their glasses and didn’t seem to have any problem. I was also surprised that it wasn’t heavier. Overall, the construction seems extremely solid and I’m confident that it would remain comfortable for extended sessions.

The Experience

The first moment that the HoloLens kicks on and you see a 3D image rendered in actual space is breathtaking. “This is the future,” is likely to be the first thing that comes to most people’s minds as it becomes clear that this is the first step towards the fully realized holograms science fiction has promised us for years. For those of us participating, the image was a skeleton, laid on its back, hovering just above a conference room table. As I moved around the room, it maintained its location and orientation and gave the distinct illusion of physical presence in the room.

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Then the next part activated and impressed me even more. The plain conference room was transformed. The walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture became re-textured as an old-timey apothecary shop, complete with glowing torches on the walls and bubbling potions on the desk. The ability of HoloLens to overlay the existing space and objects with new textures was in many ways even more impressive than its ability to render to objects floating in space. As I moved around the room I realized that I was simultaneously existing in and interacting with two different realities at once. One of the more impressive visuals was a river of green ooze that ran under a large spiderweb. The developers had managed to convincingly create artificial depth and make it appear as though this river was several feet below the web even though, in reality, there was a floor in the way.

The illusion of moving through this other reality was helped by the fact that the HoloLens has built in speakers near where it rests above your ears and the stereo audio means that you can actually determine the location of what is around you by sound. Hearing some squawking, I looked up to find bats roosting on the ceiling. A skeleton in a bottle begged me to let him out when I got close.

All-in-all, the experience was fun and intriguing. Unfortunately, there are a few less positive things I need to make note of...

The Hiccups

The biggest, or at least most noticeable, problem with HoloLens is how limited the actual viewport of the AR images is. Essentially, there is a square in the middle of your vision where things are actually rendered and it doesn’t even come close to reaching your peripheral vision. This means that in order to see anything I was always scanning my head around or changing my angle to be able to see things in their entirety. This had a detrimental effect on the illusion that HoloLens is otherwise very good at producing. It’s possible that more indepth adjustment of the headset could help with this but that’s not something I can judge at this time.

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Similarly, I clipped through things while I was still about 6-12 inches away from them. This isn’t as significant of an issue but it did mean I could never see things as closely as I may have liked, which I can see being a big negative for certain applications.

Overall, it’s clear that the technology is still in its infancy but it’s extremely promising and, if Microsoft can fix the few issues I have addressed, I think that HoloLens could be hugely successful for gaming and tons of other applications. I’m very excited to see where this kind of AR goes in the future.