Microsoft is continuing to use its HoloLens “mixed reality” headset to steal the show at E3. On Monday, it brought down the house with an onstage Minecraft demo in which one player wore the headset to play the game while another player used a tablet. On Tuesday, it unveiled another demo, this one connecting the HoloLens to Microsoft’s most important gaming franchise, Halo.
At its booth on the show floor, Microsoft shuttled attendees in batches of 10 into a room that resembled the inside of a spaceship. Each one was outfitted with a HoloLens headset and walked into a briefing room, where a hologram of a battlefield emerged from a table and a computerized voice ran through tactical instructions. The groups then played, on Xboxes, the multiplayer mode of Halo 5: Guardians. The headsets weren't involved in the gameplay itself.
The Halo demo showed off the advantages and shortcomings of HoloLens. On the plus side, you could walk around with them (something that would be impossible, or at least inadmissible, with an Oculus headset), while the HoloLens gave directions through the hallways of the "spaceship." However, the actual portion of the screen where a hologram can appear is relatively small. Don't expect to see any holograms in your peripheral vision. The width of the image is a major reason why the current generation of virtual-reality headsets is more convincing than its predecessors.
While the HoloLens is making Microsoft look pretty visionary right now, there are plenty of dots yet to be connected. The augmented-reality headset presents a two-pronged challenge. The first one is technical. It’s just not that easy to create a device that makes holograms appear to be actual objects in the physical world. Microsoft is having increasing success with that task, as the Minecraft and Halo demos show.
But HoloLens will also one day have to be a product that Microsoft sells or otherwise distributes to the public. Pretty much all the questions about how HoloLens becomes a business remain unanswered. The actual Halo game sold to consumers will not have a mixed-reality component.
A cautionary tale is Kinect, the motion-sensing camera that Microsoft released in 2010. The camera allowed people to play games and otherwise interact with their Xbox consoles using gestures and voice command. It was an immediate hit. But despite an early wave of neat applications, Kinect never really developed into a platform for developers in the way that other successful computing devices have. Microsoft’s vision for Kinect got muddled and the project ended up losing momentum.
There are a lot of parallels to HoloLens. Even though the gaming applications are at the front of everyone’s mind this week, the device comes from a different division of the company. It is not clear whether Microsoft sees this as a tool for primarily gamers or professionals, or whether it could convincingly develop it to be both things at the same time. Microsoft hasn’t released a software developers kit that would allow people to make independent apps for the HoloLens. The company does say it is working with some partners, but isn’t giving any details.
For now, caution is the word with the device. “We’re trying to be a little bit conservative about HoloLens just because it is a very new platform and we’re still exploring it,” says Shannon Loftis, Microsoft’s general manager for global games publishing. “We obviously don’t want to over-promise. I don’t think we’ll under-deliver.”
In the last two years, Kinect became a liability for Microsoft. It bundled the camera with the Xbox One, which made it more expensive than the PlayStation 4. After initial sales lagged, Microsoft finally began gaining ground by letting people buy the Xbox One without Kinect. While the company is stepping carefully to bring HoloLens into the Xbox fold, it has all but pushed Kinect out the door. Not once during the company’s 90-minute presentation on Monday was it mentioned.