Microsoft's HoloLens is super limited -- and hella magical

You've heard HoloLens is awesome. Here's what it's really like

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
4 min read

Microsoft's HoloLens is one of the most magical pieces of technology I've ever seen. It could change the world. But if you bought one today, for your own personal use, I guarantee you'd hate it.

For over a year, journalists have written breathless descriptions of the amazing things they've seen inside the HoloLens headset, but they've never been able to give you the full picture. Microsoft planned it that way. The first time I tried HoloLens, I actually had to surrender my camera and phone, only to walk through a set of scripted experiences in a secret bunker underneath Microsoft's Redmond campus.

It was exciting stuff. And still is, honestly. Have you seen our video yet?

But this week, Microsoft let us see what it's actually like to use HoloLens for real. I spent 90 minutes with an actual $3,000 Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition on my head, watching as computer-generated objects popped into existence in my real world. (It's £2,719 in the UK and AU$4,369 in Australia.) I walked around an ordinary hotel suite, with no Microsoft supervision, and saw what these holograms were capable of. It made my mind swirl with the possibilities.

It also made me very, very glad that Microsoft has no intention of ever releasing the current developer kit to regular, non-developer people. It's not even close to ready.

A closer look at the Microsoft HoloLens (pictures)

See all photos

Not ready

The HoloLens developer kit already looks like a consumer product, sure -- a futuristic one, anyhow. The headset is composed of a pair of concentric circles that unfold like two rings of a 3D solar system. The inner circle goes around your head, with a bicycle-helmet-style ratcheting dial to tighten it down. The front is supposed to stick to your forehead, while the back rests underneath the back of your skull.

Beneath a visor worthy of "Star Trek" engineer Geordi La Forge are a pair of lenses that glint with rainbow light. When you look through them, you can see additional objects appear around you that don't exist at all. Things only you can see. Things as small as a little CG bird perched on top of your television, or as big as the surface of Mars suddenly appearing underneath your feet. You can select apps from a Windows-like menu, but you can also just place them in your real world.

They'll be there, waiting for you wherever you left them, whenever you put the headset on.

But you don't see these holograms all around you. They're only in the center of your view. They only exist within a box, roughly the size of a smartphone, held a few inches away from your head. Look away, even a little bit, and they're gone (though, thanks to built-in 3D speakers, you may still be able to hear them as you turn.)

If they're large, like a virtual person, maybe you only see the top of them. Until you look down, their bottom half is invisible. Which means there's no point in blowing up a virtual Web browser or virtual TV screen to cover a wall, because you'd only be able to see a small chunk of it at a time.

It feels nothing like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive virtual reality headsets, which completely surround you with worlds that don't exist. HoloLens is more than that, but right now, it's also much less.

Then there's the matter of controlling the experience. To activate, grab and resize virtual objects, you need to reach out and bend your index finger in a very specific way to "airtap" them. Often as not, I missed tapping what I meant to, or failed to tap it at all. You can also just speak to the headset, issuing voice commands, but Microsoft's Cortana personal assistant often had a tough time recognizing me.

I got pretty frustrated very quickly, and I'm generally fairly patient with technology.

Enlarge Image

Fitting the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition to my head.

James Martin/CNET

Another problem I had was keeping the damn thing on my head with its amazing holographic images centered in my field of view. I had to constantly adjust it, cinch it ever tighter until it had my skull in a vice-like grip before it would stay put. I later found out that it comes with a pair of optional straps that go over the top of the head like a baseball cap. I wish I'd used those from the beginning.

While we're talking caveats, you should also probably know that the HoloLens has a meager 2 to 3 hours of battery life, and it won't work nearly as well outdoors. In dim rooms, the holograms feel like they've got some substance, but in bright light they'd appear ghostly.

But it's still amazing

Have you watched our video yet, the one at the top of this post?

Regardless of the technology's current limitations, it blows my mind that a completely wireless headset can do what this one does.

Microsoft's not trying to hide the HoloLens's current flaws. The company knows the technology isn't ready, and it sounds like Microsoft won't set a price or release date for a consumer version until it's a product that people will actually want to use.

The just-released Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset had two developer kits before it became a real product. I spent plenty of time with each, and they had lots of flaws as well. It was hard to wear the first one for long without feeling sick. Both the software and the hardware needed years to mature -- but the potential was there from day one.

The HoloLens feels like it could have the same potential. I can't wait to see if it pans out.

Update, November 2:Added UK and Australian prices for the Development Edition model.