Sorry, Oculus, but HoloLens gets my money

The battle between headsets you strap to your heads is being brought to a rolling boil this week, as Microsoft’s HoloLens Dev Kit and Oculus Rift both start shipping to customers.

Being the lover of cutting-edge tech that I am, you’d expect I’d be in lust with both technologies, but it turns out that isn’t the case. HoloLens did something to me that Oculus never managed to: It made me think I was leaping into the future with glee and great abandon.

AR versus VR

The two devices are similar in that they’re both screens you attach to your head like a Frankensteinian experiment in man-meets-machine. That is where the similarities end. Most importantly, there are very different use cases for both: Oculus’ virtual reality (VR) is for storytelling experiences, gaming and, perhaps, if you feel particularly iron-stomached, a roller coaster or two.

A HoloLens is like wearing a heavy set of sunglasses attached to a headband. Which is why it's really curious that it's so easy to forget they are even there.

A HoloLens is like wearing a heavy set of sunglasses attached to a headband. Which is why it’s really curious that it’s so easy to forget they are even there.

HoloLens, on the other hand, is the poster child for augmented reality (AR). It’s essentially a more high-tech version of where Google Glass crashed and burned — but instead of trying to forcibly insert a computer where it doesn’t belong (ahem), the HoloLens has a slightly different remit: Unlike the ill-fated Glass, it’s not a wear-it-all-the-time piece of kit.

While the $600 Oculus Rift is far cheaper than the $3,000 HoloLens Dev Kit, the latter has a full computer built into the headset. Conversely, Rift needs to be tethered to a beefy gaming computer that can do the heavy lifting on the graphics side. You don not need to spend the $2,400 difference on the computer to drive the Rift, but you easily can, and at that point, the price difference seems moot.

It’s not even sort of about the money, however; the biggest problem I have with Oculus is that I just don’t see the point. Watching a movie is a shared experience, which is lost when you have a mask strapped around your face. I haven’t the time for gaming. And while stories like Henry show that there is definitely something to be gained from VR, it’s not something I’d necessarily seek out — and definitely not if I have to drop $2,500 or more on a kit in order to explore it.

It was against this backdrop that I let someone jack me into the matrix with a HoloLens hanging off my face: I fully expected to hate every second of it, but I was wrong. And I was hooked. Hooked beyond words. This is tech that makes sense for people who don’t want to lock themselves away from the world, who want technology to enhance, improve and, indeed, augment their lives.

The Microsoft Hololens demos showed that AR can be social, collaborative, and in the real world. More importantly, you forget that you’re even wearing it.

A far more natural experience

There’s no way of explaining how fast you’ll get used to the world suddenly having a layer of data over it. Within 20 minutes of putting the device on for the first time, it felt completely normal. Natural, even.

Those little red things are speakers, pointing at your ears. Not wearing earbuds or earphones helps the device stay curiously unobtrusive.

Those little red things are speakers, pointing at your ears. Not wearing earbuds or earphones helps the device stay curiously unobtrusive.

At one point, there were six of us, all wearing HoloLenses, interacting with the same 3D model and each other in real time. One of Microsoft’s babysitters walked over and asked, “So, where is the Energy Portal.” I looked over at him, frowned and was wondering what the hell was wrong with him.

“It is right there,” I snapped, pointing. It was at that point that I caught myself, realizing he wasn’t wearing a HoloLens, and so obviously had no way of seeing where the portal was. That was the exact moment that I realized why AR makes so much more sense than VR: Being in the real world is natural, even if it has digital doo-dahs floating about in your field of vision. Being in a fully artificial world isn’t.

One of the challenges HoloLens is going to have to continue to face is that when you’re wearing one and interacting with things that nobody can see, you look like someone who’s three marbles short of a full set of wits. Take the HoloLens demonstration at the Build conference, for example:

Yes, the people wearing the HoloLenses in the video look like absolute imbeciles. There’s no way around that, but once you’ve tried it, you won’t care how you look.

A crucial thing to keep in mind is that, unlike Google Glass, this device isn’t really designed to be worn when you’re out among people: That’s not what it is for. You wear it while interacting with the real world in controlled settings, such as an office or — more likely — a design studio.

To me, the magic of this technology is at the intersection where the real world and the augmented world meet. I have no interest in completely immersing myself in a faraway wonder world, but a piece of kit that can change the world around me, today, for $3,000? Sign me up.

At Build, the future just sort of leapt out at me, unexpected and unannounced. I’m sold. VR is nifty and all, but I still haven’t had anyone give me a compelling explanation for what it is for. AR is a very different story, and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.