Why I Don’t Care About Your New Mixed Reality Headset

I’m often approached by entrepreneurs in the AR/MR space offering me demos of new hardware.  Competition in this space is fierce. You need three major elements for me to take a new platform seriously.

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You Need These Three Things To Have A Successful Mixed Reality Device

The three requirements for any successful AR (or more specifically MR) device are: Display, Computer Vision, Operating System

Display

This is the first element of an AR/MR wearable, and usually this what all hardware companies have. There are a number of different displays out there, but they all seem to share the same limitations: additive translucent graphics, small FOV, and relatively low resolution. Often times devices with claims of wider FOVs end up with even lower resolution visuals as a compromise. Both low and high resolution displays I’ve seen are all additive, thus images appear as translucent. Some companies claim to have solved these problems. As far as I’ve seen, we’re a long ways off from a commercial reality.

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Operating System

When I got my HoloLens devkits, the first thing that impressed me is that Microsoft ported the entirety of Windows 10 to Mixed Reality. Up until now, most AR headsets had simple gaze-optimized skins for Android. Windows Holographic makes even traditional 2D applications able to be run in mixed reality as application windows floating in space or attached to your walls. It’s all tied to a bulletproof content delivery ecosystem (Windows App Store) so distribution is solved as well.

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Your device needs to be more than just something worn only to run a specific app. Mixed reality wearables will one day replace your computer, phone, and just about anything with a screen. You need a complete Mixed Reality operating system that can run everything from the latest games to a browser and your email client in this inevitable use case.

Computer Vision

I can’t tell you how many device manufacturers have shown me their new display but “just don’t have the computer vision stuff in.” Sorry, but this is the most important element of mixed reality. Amazing localization, spatialization, tracking, and surface reconstruction features are what puts HoloLens light years ahead of its nearest competition.

This stuff is hard to do. Computer Vision was formerly an obscure avenue of computer science not many people studied. Now augmented reality has created a war for talent in this sector, with a small (but growing) number of Computer Vision PhDs commanding huge salaries from well funded startups. There are very few companies that have the Computer Vision expertise to make mixed reality work, and this talent is jealously guarded.

[BONUS] Cloud Super-intelligence

The AR headset of the future is a light, comfortable, and truly mobile device you wear everywhere. This requires a constant, fast connection to the Internet. HoloLens is Wifi only for now, but LTE support must be on the horizon. Not only is this critical for everyday-everywhere use, but many advanced computer vision functions such as object recognition need cloud-based AI systems to analyze images and video. With the explosion of deep learning and machine learning technology, a fast 5G connection to these services will make Mixed Reality glasses something you never want to leave the house without.

Don’t Waste My Time

A lot of people seem impressed with highly staged demos of half baked hardware. It’s only when you begin to develop mixed reality apps that you understand what’s really needed to make these platforms successful. Demos without the critical elements listed in this post will be harder to impress with once more people are familiar with the technology.

HoloLens is Ready for Prime Time

Microsoft recently invited me to try out HoloLens at their Venice space on Abbot-Kinney. Having just won the AR/VR award in the Tango App Contest for InnAR Wars, I jumped at the chance.  After developing for Google Tango for over a year, I had a long wishlist of features I’m looking for in an AR platform. In the unlikely event that HoloLens was for real, I could make InnAR Wars exactly how I envisioned it at the start of the project.

Entering the Hololens Demo Zone

 

My skepticism was well warranted. Having worked in AR for the past 5 years, I’ve seen my share of fake demo videos and smoke-and-mirrors pitches. Every AR company is obligated to put out faked demo videos that they inevitably fail to live up to. Just look at this supercut of utterly ridiculous promotional videos. I was curious if the staged HoloLens demos weren’t much better.

I had heard many polarizing opinions about HoloLens from people who have tried it. Some felt it was an incredible experience while others told me it was the single most overhyped disappointment in consumer electronics history.

After trying it for myself, I can say HoloLens is the real deal.

The demo I tried was the “X-Ray” game shown at BUILD no too long ago. This version was a little simpler than this staged demonstration–your arm isn’t magically turned into a plasma cannon. Instead, your hold your hand out in front of the device and “air tap” to fire at enemies that appear to be coming out of cracks in the walls. Occasionally you can give a voice command to freeze time, Matrix-style, and take out enemies while they are vulnerable.

A simple game, for sure, but a great demonstration of the HoloLens’ capabilities.  

The device is clearly a prototype. It’s bulky, looks like a vision of the future from a ’90s sci-fi flick, and it even BSODed on me which was kind of hilarious.  Still, I was thoroughly impressed with HoloLens and here’s why:

Meshing

When the game starts, you have to look around the room and watch it build geometry out of the walls and other objects in the area. HoloLens builds a mesh out of the real world with a depth camera that is then used in gameplay. It’s kind of like building a video game level out of all the walls and floors in your room. This mesh is then used to place virtual wall cracks and spawn points for enemies during gameplay. Once you’ve build a complete mesh out of the room, the game begins.

This same meshing process is possible with Google Tango, but it’s slow and temperamental. Still, very impressive given it’s in a tablet you can buy right now. In fact, I used Tango’s meshing capabilities to place floor traps in InnAR Wars.

I was impressed with HoloLens’ rapid meshing as I moved around my environment. It even handled dynamic objects, such as the woman guiding me through the demo. When I looked at her during the meshing phase, she quickly transformed into a blocky form of red polygons.

Display

Initially I was disappointed in the display. Much like Epson’s Moverio or ODG’s R7 glasses, it projects the augmentation on a part of the “glass” in front of your eyes. This means you see a distracting bright rectangle in the middle of your vision where the augmentation will appear. Compared to ODG’s R7s, HoloLens seemed to have higher contrast between the part of the display that’s augmented and the part that’s not. There also is an annoying reflection that looks like a blue and green “shadow” of the augmentation above and below the square.

While playing the game this didn’t matter at all. Although everything is somewhat translucent, if the colors are bright enough the virtual objects appeared solid. Combined with rock solid tracking on the environment, I soon forgot all about contrast issues and internal reflection problems on the display. A these issues can be dealt with through art and the lighting of the room you are playing in. Plus, a Microsoft representative assured me the display is even better in the current version still in their labs.

Field of View

The top issue people have with HoloLens is the field of view. People complain that it only shows graphics in a postcard sized space in front of your vision. I had rock bottom expectations for this having developed applications on previous generation wearable AR displays. Although HoloLens’ augmentation is limited to a small square in front of your vision, this space is easily 2X the size of other platforms. In the heat of the action while playing X-Ray, I mostly forgot about this restriction.

Field of view is not an easy thing to solve–it’s a fundamental problem with the physics of waveguide optics. I’m not sure how much progress Microsoft can make here. But the FOV is already wide enough for a lot of applications.

I’m All In

Part of the pitch is the “Windows Holographic” platform. That is, in the future you won’t have screens. With HoloLens you’ll be able to place Windows applications in mid-air anywhere in your office. Applications will virtually float around you like monitors hovering in space. (Magic Leap’s fake demo video shows an example of how this would work) This can actually be done right now with HoloLens and existing Windows applications. Supposedly, some Microsoft engineers wear HoloLens and have integrated the “holographic” workspace into their daily use.

Beyond gaming applications, I am on board with this screen-free future. Your tablet, computer, even your phone or smartwatch will merely be a trackable object to display virtual screens on. Resolution and screen size will be unlimited, and you can choose to share these virtual screens with other AR users for collaboration.  No need to re-arrange your office for that huge 34 inch monitor. You can simply place it in 3D space and overlay it on top of reality. Think of all the extra stuff your phone could do if it didn’t have to power a giant LCD display! It’s definitely on its way. I’m just not sure exactly when.