It’s rare for a company to catch both press and fans alike off-guard with a hardware announcement. The Project Morpheus virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD), for example, was all but confirmed by the time Sony Computer Entertainment’s reveal event rolled around. Microsoft, however, managed to surprise just about everyone last week as a media briefing originally thought to be revealing new features for its Windows 10 operating system (OS) played host to the announcement of Windows Holographic and the HoloLens HMD. This exciting new concept allows users to see and interact with holograms. Its potential impacts are huge, but what does it mean for VR?
Microsoft itself was the first to point out that HoloLens isn’t meant to compete with the likes of the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus. In fact the company went as far as to invite Oculus VR to work with it on HoloLens applications. Despite praise from the likes of Palmer Luckey, it would be surprising to see Oculus VR take Microsoft up on this offer given that it’s solely focused on supporting its own platform, hardware and software right now. Oculus VR is a VR specialist company and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
The technologies appear to have two different goals at this time point time. VR wants to immerse users and make them believe that they are in another world. HoloLens wants to take the world that people already live in and make it more accessible and fantastical. Its VRFocus’ belief, no doubt as with many others, that these two can co-exist and even complement each other to some degree.
Just look outside of videogames for a moment. A big focus of the HoloLens presentation was showing users making home improvements and editing product designs with the original build sitting in front of them. There’s also been talk of using VR to teach practical skills and improve architecture. In some cases, the two could make an interesting combination; imagine building the perfect house in HoloLens then walking through it with the Oculus Rift. Elsewhere the systems have their own advantages and disadvantages. Fixing real objects with a hologram of instructions in front of you is certainly more ideal than putting on a HMD, although certain situations will require specific conditions to be virtually reproduced. Neither offers an entirely perfect solution but together the concept is quite sound.
When it does come to videogames, there are aspects of HoloLens that do seem close to what’s on offer with VR. Two points in the reveal trailer, as seen below, suggest that HoloLens could indeed immerse users in different environments. One clip showcasing Minecraft, for example, reveals the iconic scenery hiding behind a real-life wall. Elsewhere a user is shown stepping from their living room into a virtual replication of Mars to inspect a buggy crawling its surface. If HoloLens really is able to turn living rooms into radically different environments like this then it could offer an entirely new way to deliver VR experiences.
Some have even claimed that HoloLens negates Oculus VR and other company’s work entirely, but VRFocus doesn’t think that this is the case. In fact it would be interesting to see if these comments would be reversed if Oculus Rift had been revealed after HoloLens; the former is newer and more mysterious, arguably giving it a more exciting edge at this point in time. That said, it’s a little much to claim that its announcement immediately renders the arresting sense of immersion that VR can achieve as pointless. No doubt that, as time goes on, consumers will start to realise that these are two different technologies with two different purposes.
It’s also important to note that there’s currently no word on when HoloLens will be consumer-ready, a state that VR will slowly but surely arriving at within the next year or so. This isn’t a race to release first and compete for holiday season domination or anything like that. These are two separate technologies that will forge their own paths and no doubt give consumers a reason to own both within time.
VR is still a hugely exciting prospect and last week’s announcement didn’t change that one bit.