The mixed messages of Microsoft’s Hololens2: very few corporate use cases and lots of limitations

I’m a bit bothered by the overselling of mixed reality, or spatial computing, at least short term (long term my kids’ lives will be dramatically improved by them, we all can see that, but that might not happen for quite a few years). Notice that Microsoft says its Hololens2 is for enterprise uses only, yet to demonstrate it they had a piano on stage. And that’s just the start of the mixed messages I saw.

Microsoft is still overselling the technology. Why? Well, it demos amazingly well and positions Microsoft as being an amazingly cool, futuristic, company. Even though I bet it’ll only sell a few tens of thousands of these, just like the original Hololens.

Most of that oversell, or mixed message, is due to the “God view” in its on-stage presentations. You get to see every virtual object on stage. But when you actually get one on you realize you were sold a bill of goods: that you can’t see that view in the Hololens, but a small little view port.

Even that is oversold. “Greatly Increased Field of View” the Hololens website promises. That’s like saying having two pennys today is greatly increased wealth when you only had one yesterday.

Thanks to my lot in life I’ve gotten to travel to see a lot of jobs. Just last summer I visited the factories of Boeing, Tesla, Ford, and Louisville Slugger.

Where will we see Hololens2 being used? Not in many places. Where will it be used?

The corporate customer experience centers (every company has them, these are multi-million-dollar efforts to look impressive). Why? Because, like it’s doing for Microsoft, it could be used to make a company look cool. That’s the magic of augmented reality. Also, because they hide Hololens’ weakness: that you can’t really wear it for hours. Or, if you try, you really don’t want to.

But will the line worker at Ford wear them? Hell no. Too heavy. The optics will cause eye strain and block too much of the real world. They are too bulky. Some worker who is putting your dash in place inside a Tesla or a Ford would constantly be hitting his or her head and the device. And even if it was being used for, say, training, or tracking of parts, that use case requires millions of dollars of custom software to be written. Software that the current development team building flat, 2D UIs in, say, Visual Studio and C#, simply doesn’t have the skills to build (you need people who have experience with video game engines to do that).

To see what I’m saying, look at all the videos up on the Hololens YouTube site, or on the main site. They look impressive until you look closer. They are all visualization scenarios that only show things that are appropriate for looking at for a few minutes, at most. Even the surgery video is oversold. Let’s say you are a surgeon doing open-heart surgery and you’ll be working on a patient for more than an hour. Do you really want a device on your head that weighs more than a pound? No, and if you get itchy, or want to move it to adjust it, surgeons tell me that doing something like that will cost $1,500 because you’ll need to rescrub your hands and that’s what it costs to do that when you touch something that’s not sterile (due to the costs of everyone else waiting the few minutes for you to go through your scrub proceedure).

But it gets worse. If we are going to really do real work, rather than just amazing visualizations, we need real tools. Note what they demonstrated in the user experience demos: a few sliders and a few buttons. There wasn’t any real work being done. Like what you and I do on our computers a lot, like in, say, a CAD tool (note that Autodesk wasn’t included in any of these demos, Autocad’s leaders told me they were burned by the Hololens team before and are skeptical of Microsoft’s efforts) or even video editing, which would be a great thing to do in spatial computing. Why not? Because finger controls, even though they are much better in Hololens2 than in the original version, aren’t precise enough to be productive. You are better off using a pen on a Wacom tablet or on an iPad screen or a mouse.

Spatial computing glasses do have some major promise. Because you can see through them they could be used in customer service, for instance, or nursing but Hololens2 simply can’t deliver on those use cases, because of the social problems of wearing a big, ugly, black thing on your face, and because they are so heavy that wearing them for hours will end up hurting your neck.

Let’s talk about optics. Note what Microsoft didn’t talk about: multi-focal-point optics. Why not? My friends say these optics don’t do that. And the operating system for Hololens doesn’t yet have support for such a thing. Magic Leap does, and that was the core reason investors gave Magic Leap $2 billion. Why is this important? If you want to really work on virtual items you must be able to get close. My Hololens only lets me get a foot or so away from items and even then if I try looking at items that close for long my eyes get tired because the images aren’t refocused like a real item in your hand. And I’m told by optics experts that the accomodation and vergence handling isn’t nearly as good as in Magic Leap. (Accomodation is the technical term for how your eye changes shape and refocuses on things close to it, and vergence is the term for how your eyes get crosseyed when looking at something close to them).

Think about curling up in bed with your phone or tablet and how close that gets to your eyes. Hololens2 can’t do anything like that. Now, think about a worker who is putting in electrical systems into, say, a Ford truck. I’ve watched them work. They often are within six inches of their work to make sure that things get snapped in properly and, even, they are working in such tight quarters, like underneath a dash, that they don’t have much choice to be far away anyway.

And the optics still aren’t bright enough, nor sharp enough, to be comfortable reading, say, Tweetdeck or the New York Times in bright sunlight. It might be good enough to see CAD files laid over a building site, but, again, that doesn’t require much hard focusing on text or doing much real manipulation. In the video demos they are pretty careful to stay away from that kind of work and more on the “look at the cool visuals” kind of demo.

After the demos were done on Sunday I started hearing that Microsoft is going to be careful about who they sell these to, making sure that buyers actually have a real use case and they won’t try using them to do something outside of a small set of use cases. I don’t yet know if that’s true, but note that they aren’t setting expectations on shipping dates on the website yet.

At least Microsoft has been pretty consistent at saying these aren’t for consumers, although I wish it had been consistent and tried demonstrating on some enterprise machines, or designs, instead of having a little virtual angel flying around stage and a piano. That sends mixed messages to the market that Hololens simply can’t meet yet.

That said, the real battle over the future of computing has barely even begun, which is what I said in an analysis of what it means for Apple and Magic Leap, on Sunday.

Already, since then, Rony, the founder of Magic Leap, has been promising a new pair of glasses with mind-blowing optics and much better use cases next year.

Until then expect the Hololens to be used on limited corporate projects: things that are fun for the CEO or CTO to demo, but aren’t really used much to do real work. Hopefully that changes with future versions, but we need much better optics, much lighter weight, and much more software to do a wider range of use cases and make it easier for 2D software teams to move their old apps into the spatial computing world. I don’t expect all these problems to be solved for many years, do you?

Until then, I wish Microsoft would be more realistic in demos and stop using the “God view” so much in its demos so people get a real feel for what it is like to use these. It oversells the technology and that’ll hurt its credibility with the people it needs most: the evangelists who will need to help companies put them into use and the CTOs and developers who will be asked to build projects with them.

And start giving us a road map for how much effort Microsoft is going to put into Hololens in the future. We need a lot more tools to help turning our factories into spatial computing-ready workplaces. We need global mesh abilities that Microsoft hinted at, but really doesn’t have a strong vision like what Magic Leap lays out whenever it talks. No discussion of privacy, for instance. That punt is acceptable due to saying “these are enterprise only” (we all know we don’t have privacy at work) but real workloads require much more than what we’ve been told here.

One real positive step Microsoft made for workers: the flip-up screen. That shows that Microsoft understands that these devices are only useable for short periods of time and then you want to flip the screen up to go back to other computing devices, or to talk with other people, or use other tools.

Can MagicLeap, or others, take advantage of any of these mixed messages? Possibly, but Microsoft has such a strong lock over most of the computing used in enterprises that I’m skeptical. But Magic Leap, by having a more consistent vision, and one that’s free of having to cowtow to 2D customers, can really set itself apart for consumers and creators. Microsoft has left that door open so far. Will it shut it next year and stop sending mixed messages?

Rethinking evening events

I didn’t use to understand why some people would never be able to come to evening events. And even if I had understood, I didn’t have the empathy for what they were going through, usually as parents, but sometimes as caretakers of others, such as elderly parents. That’s changed for me big time .

Now that Maryam Ghaemmaghami Scoble and I have flipped roles (she works at VMware and I stay home with the kids, while trying to build a business that fits around them) I’ve had to turn down dozens of events, because I have kids to drop off in the morning, pick up in the afternoon, and do stuff with other times.

Oh, and it isn’t lost on me that most of the people who are dropping kids off, or picking them up, are either women or are grandparents, filling in for two-working-parent families, or single parent homes.

I never thought about it before, but now I’m thinking about our gender roles in a whole new way.

My partners and I are setting up our company around our lives, not the other way around. More about our new company March 1.

One of the things we want to do is put together industry events. Luckily VR most people can afford and use without having a room or a PC is coming so that we can jump into events virtually soon, no matter where or when they are (I often do phone calls in the evening, while the kids are goofing off or doing homework, or even after they go to sleep. Turns out my Tesla is noise proof, so I can use it as an office for doing such calls late into the night).

That said, I am soon going to do some mentoring meetings for spatial computing industry in San Francisco, and I’m thinking of making them late in the morning instead of at night for just these reasons.

Now, excuse me, gotta go wash the dishes and do the laundry before Maryam Ghaemmaghami Scoble notices I haven’t kept up on my side of the bargain.

Oh, some other learning? I need to focus more on my health. Sugar has turned into a poison in my life. It kicks my ass. I gave it up for more than a week, then had some today and boom, I was out for a nap and not a good one (my doctor is working with me on changing my diet). So far lost 10 lbs in less than two weeks just by changing diet. More to come on that front.

Change might have been forced on me, but it does give me so many gifts. Sorry to those I didn’t empathize with over the years.

The LBVR shootout: The Void vs. Spaces VR (report from opening night at first Silicon Valley location)

Opening night at Spaces VR in San Jose, California

Silicon Valley got its first VBVR on Friday night with the opening of Spaces, which is located inside the Cinemark Theater in Oakridge Mall, and its new game “Terminator: Salvation VR.” Read below for my family’s analysis of it vs The Void’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” but first let’s talk about Spaces, since this is the first weekend Silicon Valley has gotten to play anything like this.

You can get tickets here.

Spaces is a VR game you play with three other players. I took my family Friday night, and the short of it is they all loved it, thought it was great use of technology.

But on the ride home we started comparing it to the Void, which we had recently experienced in Los Angeles, and it did have some areas to improve on. This was good preparation for the kind of work I’ll be starting up again in March, when we turn on “Infinite Retina,” a new business I’m working on with a few other people in the spatial computing arena.

VC firm A16z kicked the LBVR war into high gear with an investment into an LBVR startup just a couple of weeks ago. LBVR stands for “Location Based Virtual Reality,” which generally means a store you go into to experience new kinds of entertainment properties (usually games) on high end VR gear you can’t get for home use.

For these things you pay $15 to $30 per player, which gets a bit expensive for a family of four, like we were.

As we walked in with our electronic tickets, we were greeted by a nice looking storefront, with both happy customers who were getting out of the experience, and folks like us who were getting checked in. Checking in here meant typing your name, user name, an email address, and taking a face scan, which as we saw on the monitors, was used inside the game on top of your virtual being. Pretty cool technology from the start. More on that later, because it’s one of the real differentiators between the Void, which is the best known LBVR.

I previously played the Void in New York, where I did its Ghostbuster experience and recently took my family to the Void’s Ralph Breaks the Internet experience. More on the differences in a bit.

Inside we had sensors put on our feet and hands, a heavy backback/vest, and a VR headset, which I recognized as an altered Oculus Rift headset (it had bigger pads around the face than mine).

A kind staff explained how it worked, showed us an intro video that got us ready for the game inside, and walked us into the experience. Once in we had to find our battle stations (my son and I went to the wrong stations since I didn’t notice that stations had a name on them, and once in you name was locked to the device you were wearing.

Which meant I was fighting next to an avatar that looked like a short version of me and I was playing as a tall nine-year-old. It was entertaining to my wife and I, but Ryan, my son, wasn’t so happy about that. He was happy, though, that his user name won the game. I guess I’m more violent than a nine year old, or, at least better at hitting Terminators with guns.

The game play? Well, in 15 minutes you don’t get much. You basically get walked onto a virtual deck, think like an airport tarmac, where you can test out your gun that gets handed to you there (it’s cool, recoils and everything) and blow various things up by shooting at them for a couple of minutes getting ready for the real game. After the warmup period, we get walked onto an elevator-type platform, and get transported into the game, where we basically have to shoot as many Terminators as possible, and put together a fuel generator and aim a laser system to blow up a Skynet satellite dish.

For more details, see Dean Takahashi, who is my favorite writer on VR gaming topics, and his experience playing it here.

As we were getting out of our suits I started a live Twitter stream, which you can see here, so you can see the resulting video and my kids’ first reactions.

The Battle between Void and Spaces

In reading a bunch of reviews I realized most of the journalists haven’t been in any of the other LBVRs. Since my family has already been in the Void, we broke down the differences for you.

One huge difference between the Void and Spaces is the Void forces you to walk into different experiences, and gives you basically three different games to play. Spaces had you get into a little craft which delivered you into the main game experience, and took you back, but it really was only one game experience, shooting Terminators and doing a simple task of putting a nuclear pack into place, then putting another machine’s powersource in place, holding a lever, and pushing a button, then aiming a beam, all to save the world. I didn’t find the gameplay all that important or interesting, but shooting Terminators was fun. The haptic gun was awesome, I think it was a little nicer than the one I used in Void, but it didn’t matter that much to overall experience in either place.

The game in the Void was more memorable for my family.

Void was more fun because of the more varied gameplay and a more developed storyline and better use of physical scents and air moving. Spaces tried, sprayed water on you when you shot the watertank, but not quite as satisfying. Spaces also put more sensors on you, including some on your feet. This took a little longer and is a bit more awkward because staff need to put stuff on your shoes. Not really a task I would love to be doing all day long. Maryam did note that the technology seemed more advanced in Spaces, and she thought that putting your own face on your virtual character was a nice touch.

Little Touches Get Noticed

Upon getting out we were emailed a photo. Void printed one out and handed it to us. I thought that was a nice touch. Spaces let you buy a copy of the video of you shooting, but the storyline wasn’t all that interesting (you see the video in my video over on Twitter).

Anyway, long story short, the Void came off with a little better brand in the end, and because I’ve already gotten to experience two things in it (and I want to experience the third) while Spaces only has one, I think the Void is way ahead in building a brand that people will want to come back to again and again. I could see replaying the Void .

This game didn’t get me to go “holy f**k that was amazing” but they didn’t screw up, so if they come out with a new experience I’d certainly go back for that. In terms of business, Spaces got nice PR this week, because it does deliver the magic of VR of embodiment and immersion very well, and does give you stuff IMAX didn’t: something you can not do at home, even if you are a billionaire (group-based VR, with physical immersive devices, AKA guns and rails that you touch).

Intellectual Property is Hugely Important

Choosing the right intellectual property partner is going to be important in the VBVR businesses. Terminator is not a current movie. Our kids, 9 and 11, haven’t seen one yet and I can’t even remember which one was my favorite.

Compare to Star Wars (which, while isn’t really current, is a much more important franchise than Terminator), Ghostbusters, and Ralph Breaks the Internet.

These are brands that kids and parents connect to emotionally in a warm way.

Terminator just has a shooting and a dystopian affordance. Not nearly as fun, nor does it appeal from curb nearly as well. In fact, we walked by their storefront in Irvine and it just didn’t convince me to get excited for that reason. Ralph Breaks the Internet and Star Wars have much better “curb appeal.”

But, Spaces wins in Silicon Valley this weekend simply because it’s the only one here. So, if you want to play VR in San Jose you only have one choice. For now.

The technology was a little more exposed in Spaces than in the Void, but my family didn’t care about that (I notice such things, because I’m constantly looking for new tech). I saw screens that were running the system (software keeps track of where each of the four players are, and lets a staff member interact with you while you are in).

The Void and Spaces similarly had things you can touch (for real) in the game, which adds to the magic of immersion. Your mind buys into these things much more if, in virtual reality you see a rail, and you can touch it with your hand.

The Void had used rails and other devices to convince you to move around, from virtual place to virtual place, better than Spaces had. But that not sure that’s very important to building a business or a brand here. I think mostly these will be judged by overall fun factor, which they both deliver on, even if the Void does win, and intellectual property that gets crowds into these experiences. Here the Void is a huge winner with my kids, the Terminator experience just didn’t give us the same warm feelings.

My kids also remembered the cuteness factor of the Void. In it we shot pancakes at bunnies, at one point, and the air smelled of maple syrup. Maryam appreciated that more, too, since the kids weren’t playing with real guns, shooting real-looking bullets.

I did notice that a marketer was asking lots of questions as people got out of the experience, which shows the kind of attention that these companies are putting into getting customers back, along with having good reports for the VCs who are shoveling money into these unproven businesses.

Will they win your money? They should, they are a ton of fun, and it is very rare that anything gets my kids, not to mention Maryam (I’m her husband), excited by entertainment enough to get them to talk to me on the ride home.

Next weekend we might be going to Los Angeles to hit up a few others my partners want us to see, so expect more reports.

How will you judge these? Let me know on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.