By David Aaron Pierce
With Microsoft's recent announcement of the HoloLens, we now have several competing visions of the future of graphical displays that could change the way we play games, use computers and watch entertainment. A lot of confusion exists as to what these things can and can’t do, so let’s clarify these various technologies.
The HoloLens name, and Microsoft’s marketing, suggests the use of holograms, but it is in fact an example of augmented reality. Augmented reality can encompass a lot of different concepts, but its core adds virtual aspects to the world around you. Microsoft’s Kinect pioneered bringing AR to the consumer, and it is no surprise that Alex Kipman, who first pitched Kinect to Microsoft, is heavily involved in developing the HoloLens.
The HoloLens augments reality by projecting images on screens directly in front of the eyes. It does not block the view of the world, but simply adds imagery on top of it. With the combination of motion sensing and wall/surrounding sensing, the HoloLens can incorporate the room around the user and is aware of how 3D imagery should align in its surroundings.
If this all sounds similar to Google Glass, that’s because Glass was an attempt to bring AR functionality on otherwise ordinary looking glasses frames that can be worn at all times. Whereas a major part of the HoloLens functionality comes from mapping out its surroundings in an indoor environment, at the very start Google conceived Glass as an always-on outdoor device that could be worn anywhere for immediate access to the internet.
By centering their focus on use in the home or the office, Microsoft might try to avoid the contentious attitude that encumbered Glass. The preconception that Glass was always on, always connected and possibly shooting video at any time begat the turn of phrase “Glasshole.”
Holograms: not just for variant cards anymore...
An actual hologram is a display that occupies space, and puts graphics in the physical world, also known as a volumetric display. Voxiebox is a current example of a volumetric display game system. It projects voxels (3D pixels) into a table of 128x128x64 voxels to make blocky, 8-bit graphics in 3 dimensions. The box containing the display is clear on all sides and allows for viewing from any perspective above and around. Fast moving lasers create the image inside the box, and produce a physical 3D image that can be seen clearly by the naked eye. This is a hologram in the true definition of the term, but currently the technology is very expensive (meant for arcades, a day's rental of the Voxiebox is $2700) and very limited graphically, only allowing for games with a blocky, old school aesthetic.
Microsoft’s decision to use AR lenses to place images in the environment is an understanding that physical holographic imagery is still years away from store shelves. For now, volumetric displays will remain a niche product for demonstrations and medical imagery.
Patience is a virtual reality
Popularized in the 80s and 90s, virtual reality technology could not match expectations. It was slow and capped at a few frames per second, making for an unresponsive and motion sickness inducing experience.
In 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a consumer level system that incorporated 3D visuals. It was made for a tabletop and required a clumsy apparatus to remain at eye level. The necessity to keep the system under $200 made Nintendo forego color graphics and use monochromatic red LEDs. The red on black display was uncomfortable for users and it was noticed early enough by Nintendo that they inserted 15-minute break reminders into all their games.
The Oculus Rift changed the perception of VR in 2012 by utilizing better screen technology and modern 3D computer hardware. The visuals in Oculus require a computer to power them, so it is always tethered, unlike Microsoft and Google’s AR devices, which can run on their own using less powerful chips. Combining outside processing power with 1000 Hz (times per second) internal motion sensing and a screen with a maximum 75 Hz refresh rate (DK 2 prototype) Oculus breaks the barrier between head movement and the imagery on screen, filling one’s view with as much graphical fidelity as one’s computer can power.
Sony’s answer to VR, Project Morpheus remains mostly hidden from the public, with limited viewings at events. Like Oculus, this device tethers to a powerful computer, in this case, a Playstation 4. People who have used both prototypes say that Sony still has catching up to do in terms of lag and screen refresh.
Between these three technologies only AR and VR have consumer level technologies, and both have historic failures in their past. Microsoft's take on augmented reality is a direct response to Google's misfire, and the Occulus Rift and Sony's Morpheus have two decades of VR failure to overcome. Which of these technologies will be well received, and which will remain novelties is yet to be seen, but the interest in new display technology in the past few years suggests that things could change at a surprisingly rapid pace in the decade to come.
David Aaron Pierce spends his time defending Bayonetta and planning new games to create. You can follow his thoughts on Twitter here: @da_pierce.