Hololens offers imperfect but impressive augmented reality

HoloLens Minecraft 2

"LIGHTNING BOLT", I yell. I'm sitting in a vague facsimile of a sitting room off a secret, high-security corridor on the periphery of Minecon, the annual get-together for 10,000 Minecraft fans from around the world. There are literally guards on the door, and they're probably wondering why I'm shouting "LIGHTNING BOLT" over and over again.

The answer, if they'd asked, would have been that I'm trying to set a nice man from Microsoft on fire. He and a few of his colleagues are demoing Minecraft on the Hololens—an augmented reality headset that caused something of a stir when it was shown off in action at E3 earlier this year. If you've seen that demo, you'll know that shouting 'lightning bolt' conjures down a bolt of lightning that turns pigs into zombie pigmen, ignites TNT and sets things on fire. If you haven't seen it, you should probably watch it. I'll wait.

Now, I've been covering videogames for several years now, and I'm often a bit cynical when I see videos like this. Usually these wow-inducing videos are carefully choreographed, with things breaking all over the place if you step foot off the planned path. So the first thing I did when I put the headset on was to throw myself off a cliff. I landed with a thud at the bottom, and the nice Microsoft man looked confused. Turns out that this demo wasn't as on-rails as I thought.

But let's rewind a little and talk about putting that headset on, because that was my first experience of the Hololens and it's not an easy thing to do. I wear glasses, and while it's apparently been designed with that in mind, it'd be a stretch to call it comfortable. Even with the help of the Microsoft folks, getting the fit right—so I could see the whole field of view in front of my eyes—took several attempts.

That field of view is pretty small, too. Grab your smartphone and hold it about 5 centimetres from your face—that's about how big the display is. Outside that you can still see the real world, but the augmentations from the Hololens disappear—dialling back the kind of immersion seen in the E3 demo.

Those are my only two complaints, though. Which is quite remarkable given how I was expecting for the whole thing to sag around the edges when I poked at it too hard. The game itself isn't a prototype that looks like Minecraft, with the right textures but the wrong feel. It's the actual game (the Pocket/Windows 10 edition, to be specific).

Hololens 2

Microsoft took great pains all the way through to emphasise that the equipment I was using was nowhere near finished. That's why I wasn't allowed to take any kind of recording equipment in beyond a notebook and I can't show you any pictures of me wearing it. When I asked how "done" it is, the nice Microsoft man said "Probably about 15%" and the others looked a bit scared when I wrote that number down. "That's more of an estimate than a hard number," they said, so make of that what you will. Either way, the hardware in particular seems to be at a very early stage.

It's the best 'god' experience I've ever felt in a game.

We went through most of the E3 demo, albeit with a bit more 'lightning bolt' than you saw above. My attempt to burn down the nice wooden house they'd built failed—it seemed like they'd turned off fire spread (probably because they knew I was coming). But the feeling of looking at the table, saying "create world", and then seeing that table fall away and a blocky mountain rise out of it was seriously awesome. It's the best 'god' experience I've ever felt in a game—way beyond what Black & White ever delivered—because the people running around my world were real.

The pinch-to-move-your-viewpoint thing works well, and you can zoom in and out too—though it's much easier to aim your lightning bolts zoomed in. It has 3D capabilities, which work unobtrusively. I asked specifically if it'll work for people who are colourblind and was assured that yes, it will. Most notably, it didn't make me feel sick at all in the seven or eight minutes I was wearing it—though it did get a bit heavy in that time.

Hololens 1

What Microsoft wouldn't discuss is whether the Hololens edition will ever be opened up for modding and the like. I suspect that's not going to happen—at least for now. Most Minecraft modding is done on the Java-based desktop edition, while the Pocket Edition (and therefore the Hololens edition) is written in C++ instead.

But modded or not, Minecraft is the perfect game for this sort of device—the 'killer app', as people in the technology industry are fond of saying. I'm on the fence about whether Minecraft alone can make Hololens a success—it'll depend hugely on what price point the Hololens eventually lands at. But for now, it's the most compelling non-traditional gaming experience I've played. If Microsoft can nail the comfort factor with a few more prototypes, and expand the field of view to make it more immersive, that $2.5 billion acquisition is going to have been worth it.

Wes has also tried Hololens, and you can read his impressions from back in January here.