All posts in “Hololens”

How Magic Leap compares to Microsoft HoloLens

I first tried out Microsoft HoloLens a few years ago, a few months before its launch as a developer tool, and came away with similar impressions that many tech journalists had at the time: the tech was intriguing and impressive in some ways, but its limited field of view diminished the experience considerably.

I’ve used HoloLens a few times since then at demos and events, and although there have been improvements, they haven’t changed fundamental experience — or its limitations.

Magic Leap, which launched its developer hardware in August, provoked similar reactions. Although the product is different from HoloLens in many ways — it’s more steampunk goggles than futuristic visor, and you need to carry around a small hockey-puck computer to make it work — most people who had hands-on time with the device had similar observations: Here was a very promising augmented-reality experience that also suffers from field-of-view limitations and a lack of compelling software (although the latter criticism may have changed on Wednesday, with the release of a Magic Leap version of Angry Birds).

But if you were to conclude from those general impressions that the two devices provide near-identical experiences, you’d be mistaken. There are clear differences between the two, rooted in each company’s approach to augmented reality, the specific problems they’re trying to solve, and even the respective company cultures. Magic Leap also had the benefit of being able to act after HoloLens, learning from early criticisms of that device.

I recently got a chance not just to try out Magic Leap and HoloLens, but to do so back to back — a rare treat for expensive developer hardware made by competing companies. Thanks to a gathering of virtual- and augmented-reality storytellers arranged by StoryUp, a startup that helps produce immersive content, and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, I was able to use both products extensively. The exposure to both headsets in the same time and place gave me strong impressions of what each product is — and isn’t — good at.

Leaps and Lenses

This was my first exposure to the Magic Leap One. Most AR/VR headsets require a certain amount of precision when putting them on, but that goes double for Magic Leap since it requires that you carry around the tiny computer, called a Lightpack, that powers the experience. That means you have to remember to sling it around your shoulder before donning the goggles. You also need to make sure the supports in back are more on the top of your head than lower on your skull, which is a bit counterintuitive.

Magic Leap is more of a chore to put on than HoloLens, but it's slightly more comfortable to actually wear.

Magic Leap is more of a chore to put on than HoloLens, but it’s slightly more comfortable to actually wear.

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

HoloLens isn’t much better in this department, but it’s better. Microsoft’s headset is a single, standalone unit, so there’s no purse computer. However, it’s also a bit weird in how it fits on your head: The visor connects to a headband via a hinge, and you’re often left wondering if you’ve put it on right once you’ve slipped it on and raised the visor back up. Still, I prefer Microsoft’s crank for tightening the headset on your head to Magic Leap’s traditional straps, but will admit the crank might feel weird for novice users.

Where Magic Leap surprised me the most was its field of view. Yes, it’s limited — the virtual images are confined to a rectangular zone right in front of you – but it’s not nearly as limited as HoloLens. There’s no official spec for field of view, but some have pegged the vertical FoV at almost double that of HoloLens. 

Smart hardware and software choices help, too. My first experience with Magic Leap was a demo “world,” where various patterns that resemble marine life appeared all around me, changing seemingly at random. When I reached out to touch the images, they’d react in different ways: seaweed-like tendrils would bend to my hand movements, and a jellyfish-like ball would rapidly spin and implode when I tried to grab it.

Magic Leap was more effective at immersing you with virtual objects than HoloLens, thanks mainly to its better field of view.

Magic Leap was more effective at immersing you with virtual objects than HoloLens, thanks mainly to its better field of view.

Image: Sarah Hill/Mashable

Magic Leap’s goggles do appear to cut off more peripheral vision than HoloLens. While that sounds bad, it also means the ratio of non-augmented space to augmented space in your gaze goes up, so naturally it feels more immersive. Whatever the reason, I was not immediately struck, and subsequently frustrated, by how limited the “magic” window was on Magic Leap.

By contrast, HoloLens keeps reminding you of what you’re missing. After putting on the $3,000 headset, I took a look around the kitchen I was standing in and saw it was populated with several holograms, including very precise renderings of ballerinas, weightlifters, and breakdancers. But as I moved my head to check them out, parts of the holograms would get cut off as they moved out of the holographic part of the display.

This is the most annoying thing about HoloLens. When something interests you visually, you have a natural inclination to move closer so you can see it better. But instead of rewarding you, HoloLens’ limited field of view will cut off parts of the object you’re looking at, preventing you from taking it in fully. The closer you get, the more it takes you out of the experience.

A winner materializes

I didn’t experience the same level of frustration with Magic Leap. The software is a big part of this; most of the virtual objects I interacted with weren’t particularly large, so there was less chance of them being cut off.

The objects also tended to have a more ethereal quality to them, which does a lot to manage expectations: it’s less weird to see something ghostly start to disappear. By contrast, Microsoft’s very solid-looking holograms always looked strange when heads, feet, or arms were cut off.

That said, I have to concede realistic holograms are more of a point for Microsoft than against. The goal of HoloLens is to mix virtual objects with the real world, but in a way where the viewer sees and treats those objects as if they were real. And it succeeds: The holograms are almost always crisp and clear to the eye. I tried a couple of different apps on Magic Leap, but the virtual objects never felt quite as present.

So yes, HoloLens has a certain rigidity that the Magic Leap didn’t match, but it wasn’t always an advantage. The hand gestures that you use to manipulate the holograms need to be very precise, and those interactions often call up icons and menus in 3D space. In general, it feels like the experience was designed by engineers — it seems Microsoft can’t help but be Microsoft, even when it’s innovating.

I found using Magic Leap to be a much more natural experience. The only menu I really used was the main one that you call up with the remote. Otherwise I mostly just used my hands to goof around with things, walking through virtual environments, like a volcano-ravaged Guatemalan village in an AR experience created by The New York Times. At one point the headset got confused when it couldn’t figure out exactly where I went in the room when I moved from an open area to a tight space, but mostly it did a better job of creating an AR-enhanced environment than HoloLens.

Back in HoloLens

Back in HoloLens

Image: Pete Pachal/Mashable

If you’re getting the sense there’s a winner here, you’re right. Again, Magic Leap had the advantage of taking its time — thanks in part to an absurd amount of venture funding — and addressing early concerns of AR, so it’s not an even playing field. But there are also some some fundamental differences in approach that help, too.

With its traditional dialog boxes, desktop-like iconography, and need for precise gestures, HoloLens feels much more like a developer tool. Microsoft has told a confusing story around HoloLens — at various points in its lifetime it’s been touted as a consumer, gaming, and enterprise device – which has led to some paralysis in the experience. Without a software experience to walk you through things, it’s not intuitive to use.

Magic Leap, on the other hand, feels like a level up. The graphics don’t look better, but, using it immediately after HoloLens, I felt like an artist who’d just been given a slightly bigger canvas and a much better paintbrush. Both platforms still need a killer app to make them worthwhile, but at least with Magic Leap you’re thinking more about what you can see and do than what you can’t.

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HoloLens 2 will reportedly address the biggest criticism of the first model

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Back in 2016 Microsoft entered the augmented-reality game with HoloLens, a headset that delivered a true mixed reality, combining the real world with virtual images on a transparent display.

Developers and early adopters quickly realized that, while HoloLens was promising, it was being held back by its small field of view. However, this will reportedly change with the second generation of the hardware.

The Verge reports Microsoft is planning to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year. Codenamed Sydney (a name first revealed by Thurrott), the new model will apparently address the biggest criticism of the current HoloLens: its limited field of view. HoloLens 2 will improve things, the report says, but it’s unclear by how much. 

HoloLens 2 should have the latest Kinect sensor onboard as well as a proprietary artificial intelligence chip. Both of these should improve the visuals and latency, creating a more immersive mixed-reality experience.

While details are still scarce, the second-generation headset will be built around an ARM-based processor (the current model uses a discontinued Intel chip), which could bring better battery life, allowing users to be in the mixed reality for a longer period of time. 

There will likely be a larger focus on consumers with the new model. So far HoloLens has mostly been a developer and enterprise play, and it carries a high price tag ($3,000 for the developer edition, $5,000 for the commercial “suite”). Hopefully the second generation will be more affordable, bringing the tech to a new class of customers.

Microsoft is expected to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year, but don’t expect to your hands on one until 2019.

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HoloLens acts as eyes for blind users and guides them with audio prompts

Microsoft’s HoloLens has an impressive ability to quickly sense its surroundings, but limiting it to displaying emails or game characters on them would show a lack of creativity. New research shows that it works quite well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions.

The researchers, from CalTech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it, right?

Crunching visual data and producing a map of high-level features like walls, obstacles, and doors is one of the core capabilities of the HoloLens, so the team decided to to let it do its thing and recreate the environment for the user from these extracted features.

They designed the system around sound, naturally. Every major object and feature can tell the user where it is, either via voice or sound. Walls, for instance, hiss (presumably a white noise, not a snake hiss) as the user approaches them. And the user can scan the scene, with objects announcing themselves from left to right from the direction in which they are located. A single object can be selected and will repeat its callout to help the user find it.

That’s all well for stationary tasks like finding your cane or the couch in a friend’s house. But the system also works in motion.

The team recruited seven blind people to test it out. They were given a brief intro but no training, and then asked to accomplish a variety of tasks. The users could reliably locate and point to objects from audio cues, and were able to find a chair in a room in a fraction of the time they normally would, and avoid obstacles easily as well.

This render shows the actual paths taken by the users in the navigation tests.

Then they were tasked with navigating from the entrance of a building to a room on the second floor by following the headset’s instructions. A “virtual guide” repeatedly says “follow me” from an apparent distance of a few feet ahead, while also warning when stairs were coming, where handrails were, and when the user had gone off course.

All seven users got to their destinations on the first try, and much more quickly than if they had had to proceed normally with no navigation. One subject, the paper notes, said “That was fun! When can I get one?”

Microsoft actually looked into something like this years ago, but the hardware just wasn’t there — HoloLens changes that. Even though it is clearly intended for use by sighted people, its capabilities naturally fill the requirements for a visual prosthesis like the one described here.

Interestingly, the researchers point out that this type of system was also predicted more than 30 years ago, long before they were even close to possible:

“I strongly believe that we should take a more sophisticated approach, utilizing the power of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of detailed visual information in order to substitute for the missing functions of the eye and much of the visual pre-processing performed by the brain,” wrote the clearly far-sighted C.C. Collins way back in 1985.

The potential for a system like this is huge, but this is just a prototype. As systems like HoloLens get lighter and more powerful, they’ll go from lab-bound oddities to everyday items — one can imagine the front desk at a hotel or mall stocking a few to give to vision-impaired folks who need to find their room or a certain store.

“By this point we expect that the reader already has proposals in mind for enhancing the cognitive prosthesis,” they write. “A hardware/software platform is now available to rapidly implement those ideas and test them with human subjects. We hope that this will inspire developments to enhance perception for both blind and sighted people, using augmented auditory reality to communicate things that we cannot see.”

A man played AR ‘Super Mario Bros.’ in Central Park and no one thought it was weird

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Not to detract from the cool tech creation here, but programmer Abhishek Singh’s augmented reality reimagining of Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 for HoloLens isn’t even the craziest thing about this video. That honor goes instead to the total indifference expressed by every pedestrian in New York’s Central Park.

How do you witness a spectacle like this and just keep on walking? If I came across a man dressed like a video game plumber and wearing a future-tech headset in midtown Manhattan, you can be damn sure I’d stop to see what he’s doing.

Singh’s rebuilt version of World 1-1 isn’t a perfect replica, largely because Super Mario Bros. was never built to be played in a 3D space. Instead of trying to climb imaginary block hills or leap across deadly drops, Singh simply walks around them.

It’s like the world’s dumbest (and most amazing) cheat code. I’ve got to try this, somehow.

Cardboard augmented reality goggles? Please, no. We’ve done this dance before.

No. Just, no. We do not need a series of “Google Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices to help usher us into the age of augmented reality

But yes, that’s exactly what at least two companies are trying to do: Sell you cardboard devices that use your smartphone to create a kind of low budget HoloLens for a fraction of the price. 

In just the last couple of weeks I’ve seen the emergence of cardboard-framed AR devices for smartphones from Aryzon (about $32) and Holokit. Both are promoted as cheap alternatives to pricier, higher end AR (or “mixed reality”) devices and both have videos showing off how they work. Neither is immediately available to the public yet, but I can see where this is all going. 

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Anyone in our office looking for the history of Google Cardboard devices need only swing by my desk to see the sprawling graveyard of cardboard boxes designed to turn your smartphone into a cheap, mobile VR headset. And while the flurry of excitement over cheap VR via Cardboard simmered for a couple of years, interest has largely died out. 

If you’re really interested in VR, you can either pick up a fairly cheap Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream View headset and the compatible smartphones that go with them. Similarly, those looking for the best VR have high-end options in the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive

Yes, cheap, cardboard AR devices are a brilliant idea on paper. And if a friend had come up with it over drinks and showed me a proof of concept I would’ve probably raved about it. But then I would’ve woken up the next morning, slammed a searing hot mug of coffee down my throat and then come to my senses, sending him a text saying, “Don’t do it.”    

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Sure, AR is part of our virtual future alongside VR, and will likely have greater reach due to its integration with the real world versus the relative isolation inherent to VR. And when the hardware that moves us from experiencing AR on our smartphone screens arrives, perhaps in the form of fashionable glasses and not unwieldy, incredibly expensive headsets like the HoloLens, that will indeed be a glorious day. But attempting to give us a middle ground in the form of a cardboard device isn’t the answer. 

We know this because we’ve been here before.     

The problem is, while VR via Cardboard devices introduced large numbers of people to the “idea” of VR, ultimately, the low quality experiences led many to assume that they’d sampled the “state of the art” in VR—and so they moved on and didn’t even consider the higher end, far more immersive and interactive options. 

Rather than serve as the perfect gateway drug, VR on Cardboard actually polluted the virtual waters, leading many to dismiss the technology as a gimmick.

Things will get better for VR, but in the short term, Cardboard did more harm than good.

That is not the fate we want for AR.

The HoloKit

The HoloKit

Sure, AR apps dealing with commerce, mapping, and gaming will almost certainly drive wide adoption of AR on smartphones and tablets in the near term, regardless of how they’re delivered early on. But tech “culture” can sometimes be just as important as the tech itself, and if something is framed as a gimmick, or a fad, meaningful platform development can suffer. The Google Glass “glasshole” debacle taught us that lesson as well. 

But the biggest indictment against “Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices is obvious: You don’t need them. Whereas the pretense with VR via Google Cardboard was that the cardboard box could close off your viewpoint to mimic an immersive headset, with cardboard-framed AR, you don’t need a “headset” or “cradle” since you’re already using your smartphone to look at AR objects anyway. Using low cost mirrors and lenses, these new cardboard devices do appear to add an additional sense of depth to the AR objects (based solely on the demo videos) while you press the box to your face, but these passive viewing devices are of limited use to all but the mildly AR curious. 

This is a clever solution without a problem.  

And just because it’s clever and possible doesn’t always mean you should do it. 

Now if they can recraft these cardboard clever contraptions into a sleek, hands-free wearable glasses sooner than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, I’ll be first in line to buy a pair. 

But until we get real AR glasses, or even cheaper, lightweight HoloLens or Meta 2 devices, AR via smartphone, sans cardboard, works just fine, thanks. 

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