Last week I was a guest on the Body Labs podcast, talking about the present and future of virtual and augmented reality with host (and old friend) Eric Rachlin ... we talked about older VR tech, storytelling in VR, and augmented reality UI challenges, including Hololens, Leap Motion, and conversation on many of the topics covered in these two previous posts.
Today I got a chance to check out Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset at a developer demo a few floors above their flagship NYC store. I received an invite to try the thing out because I have a Microsoft developer account. I have a Microsoft developer account because I’ve done some creative work with the Kinect.
I posted another piece on Medium recently about the problems with AR and have since been giving the topic a lot of thought. I’ve got a few more AR posts in the queue.
Just a bit more preface: this post is as much about that developer demo event as it is about the hardware and the content Microsoft chose to present. I’ll justify as we go along.
There appears to be a segment of the Microsoft hardware dev team that has wizard-like powers. The Kinect 2 is superlatively excellent at what it does, and it does so at a price point (~$150 + a $50 Windows adapter) that betrays its loss-leader position in their Xbox ecosystem and has made it an indispensable tool in the world of interactive art.
As you’ll read below, the HoloLens is a more-than-adequate seminal entry into the world of high-fidelity (in contrast to the low-fi of Google Glass) augmented reality. Some smart decisions were made with the interface elements in the demos presented, and the hardware, as mentioned above, must be the creation of some kind of warlock, or shaman, or kahuna, or witch doctor, truly. Some strong medicine.
With all that said, it seems that Microsoft just can’t get out of their own way. The experience of attending this demo was cripplingly awkward, and I say this as someone who has just come back from CES, arguably the best place to get a sweaty handshake and inconsistent eye contact in the Northern hemisphere. That stuff is going to be a part of this post too, not just because it’s entertaining, but because it sheds some light on MS’s marketing angle with the thing. That’s gonna matter when AR meets the public.
AR has some dorky optics to begin with. You look like an asshole using it—an issue that must be overcome if AR is going to make it in the wild—and if Microsoft is going to lead the second charge to bring it to the public (and they could, with their reach and this amazing untethered device), I’m afraid all of AR will be seen through their dweeby lens.
There are two puns in that paragraph.
Below I’ll make the argument that current state of augmented reality is much like that of the early internet, and that the same issues of balkanization and semantic discord that confronted the early web are standing in the way of AR’s potentially transformative adoption. I’ll also try to address some of the pitfalls in the possible near-term resolutions to these issues.