Microsoft Takes on VR With The HoloLens
The most interesting aspect of the HoloLens is its size, namely the lack thereof. The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are noted for how heavy they are, how tight they fit the face, and how they are both uncomfortable and quickly filled with condensation from the viewer's face and eyes. Microsoft apparently wanted to set themselves apart from the shortcomings of these models, and so the HoloLens is not only much lighter, but it does not fit tightly to the face, instead of resting on the nose and ears like traditional glasses, enabling air to pass between them and the operator. This, combined with the fact that the HoloLens weighs significantly less than even the Sony VR, should improve user comfort and longevity of play.
Microsoft has also taken steps to make the HoloLens more economically accessible. One of the biggest problems that have emerged in VR is the ancillary costs of owning a VR system. Whether it be the need to purchase a very expensive high-end console or computer, or the need to essentially dedicate a room of the house to VR gaming, most VR headsets require the purchase of serious hardware well beyond the already pricey headset itself. While the price of the consumer model of the HoloLens has not yet been revealed, the fact that it is designed to integrate into the existing Xbox One and Windows 10 architecture, shows that Microsoft is focusing on making the HoloLens more accessible.
This likely lower price point is further backed up by the lack of oomph required to make the HoloLens work properly. Rather than producing what is essentially a head-mounted high-end PC like Oculus, Sony, and HTC, the HoloLens is instead closer to a high-end cell phone, with sufficient processing power to display reasonably high-quality images that are true HD but aren't quite as high-rez as the competition. Likewise, rather than requiring hand-based peripherals or external cameras, the HoloLens simply has a Kinect-style camera array on its front, enabling it to track the user's hands at all times. If implemented properly, this could further reduce total cost, although some gamers may lament the lack of force feedback that controllers and other handheld devices offer.
It is important to note as well that the purpose of the HoloLens is not to display fully immersive VR images the way that competing systems do. Instead, the HoloLens is much closer to a heads-up display, integrating with the screen in front of the operator to provide additional information and immersion. As such, it is somewhat more accurate to call it an "augmented reality" headset rather than true virtual reality, although the distinction may be superfluous to many users. By focusing on a more open design, the HoloLens should be able to offer a very different experience when compared with other VR headsets, particularly as it can enable the user to gain information from two places at once, or from the environment around them.
This open style of design carries on to the headset's audio system, which is located behind and outside of the ear instead of over the ear as in most systems. This enables both the headset and whatever machine it is working with to offer differing sounds, which should provide developers (and thus gamers) with unique opportunities to take advantage of multiple sound sources. For example, the game's headset could deliver vital information from "ops" while the main screen shows the player what's going on with his squad, as well as all the noise and action they are experiencing. Likewise, the HoloLens could serve as a HUD for a racing or flying game, with critical radio information coming over the ear pieces while the player's sound system delivers a roaring engine note.
The fact that the HoloLens does not require a controller to function also means that it may be an ideal supplement for traditional control schemes, which enables it to skip around a problem that many other VR systems have. Namely the fact that, however realistic, most VR systems have control schemes which feel clunky and unnatural to the player. While bringing two controllers together to reload a virtual gun is certainly more realistic, it isn't as efficient and natural as hitting a button. Likewise, racing games are better with a proper racing wheel as opposed to two sticks held in the hands.
This choice to make the HoloLens more open should make it more affordable and accessible, but the machine's lack of true VR does decrease its appeal to some gamers. If properly implemented, the HoloLens could serve as an excellent supplement to games, enhancing player information and digital feedback by providing additional sound and images to the operator. While it is up to a future Microsoft HoloLens Review, ideally one with plenty of games to test it out on, to decide whether or not the HoloLens is a superior solution to the expensive and bulky VR headset, it certainly seems promising. By choosing not to build a fully VR machine, Microsoft has nimbly dodged the biggest problems of accessibility and comfort that full VR machines are most often criticized for. However, it remains to be seen whether the extras offered by the HoloLens will be worth the price, especially if few games offer additional modes and gameplay that take advantage of them.