We here at Motherboard, being generally alright people, often find ourselves getting invited to press events here and there. Last night, consumer tech editor Nicholas Deleon was invited to an event promising beer and demos of Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality goggles; owing to the natural attraction of the former two items and the extreme proximity of the event to our office, he convinced managing editor Adrianne Jeffries and I to join along. Who doesn't want to try out $3000 cybergoggles?
The event was held in a nightclub coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was an equally-fitting location to play skeeball, or launch a startup, or sample the future. Here, Adrianne is sampling some sort of shandy, which is also cool.
The aforementioned $3000 will buy you a HoloLens (I just Googled and the L is capitalized) Development Edition, which, like its VR forebear, the Oculus Rift, is designed to get the augmented reality goggles into the hands of people who can, you know, start making content and experiences for it. It's the same chicken-and-egg scenario as for VR: The idea of augmented reality, in which you can have a heads-up display for the whole world, is certainly compelling.
But who's going to spend money on an expensive gadget that has no content? Conversely, who's going to spend money making content for a device with no users? Launching the future is a challenge!
I was extremely confused by this sign until I learned "Wedgehead" is the name of the logo character of Shock Top, the beer company in question. Wedgehead is literally an anthropomorphic orange wedge with a wheat (I think, some sort of grain, I forgot to confirm) mohawk and sunglasses. The idea was that you could interact with this character via the HoloLens, which would project its visage for you and you alone.
This cyberselfie is fairly embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as the realization that I was standing in a crowded room scoffing "are you real?" at a holographic fruit apparition that no one else could see.
I also called the Wedgehead—what a delightfully literal name when you think about it—a jerk, because I was having trouble interacting with it and the sign on the computer told me insults would "trigger" it. In response, the orange insulted me back, saying I "peaked in college."
Again, I was having this conversation with a beer company's mascot, except no one else could see it but me. If some Victorian dandy were transported into the present and arrived in that room in some sort of Kate and Leopold situation, he would have surely had some sort of mental breakdown and started weeping. "Whose reality is augmented NOW?" I would have said, and the orange would have agreed.
OH! Here's what I saw: Within the field of vision of the HoloLens, which appeared as a rectangle on the lenses with a oil-film-like color, I could see this orange wedge and a beer company logo. Both were floating in the environment around me, meaning I could see the walls and art and everything that was there without goggles, but with the addition of a talking orange.
It's certainly interesting to see an image projected as a fairly seamless addition to the world, and you can imagine how cool this would be for the tourism industry, especially if you jacked it into a Segway tour, but not exactly what I'd call a deep experience. I am also not sure why the guy in the top image was making that pinching gesture because it did nothing when I tried it. Then again, HoloLens is basically a visual Ouija board; he might not have even had it turned on and was just pinching his own demons.
This is Nicholas! I have to say, these goggles look pretty rad, although the selfie cam on my iPhone doesn't really seem to be so great at handling multiple layers of reality at once. I asked Nicholas for his thoughts, which I've edited for proper punctuation because I just told him "give me a quote" in Slack:
"Well look, I'm super bullish on VR/AR, I think it's super powerful. Even just for gaming, the benefits are clear, it's going to be pretty great for games. It'll be expensive for a while but i think it will be a big deal," he said.
"Same for HoloLens, but because it's Microsoft I do think they're going to try to turn it into some productivity dreamland where you can interact with decks and charts and whatnot in the meeting room instead of a dumb whiteboard," he added. "What we saw last night wasn't anything special I don't think, but it was also a beer company. The fact that they're even bothering with HoloLens shows how much interest there is."
So yeah, overall I think there's a whole heck of a lot of potential, but will probably be only of academic interest for a little while." Thanks Nick!
I am still annoyed with Adrianne because she managed to look rather futurey with these giant goggles—they look like some Top Gun business, by the way, which is pretty sick and Microsoft is insane for not having a fighter jet game preloaded on every model—on her head, and I'm also annoyed with that man and his sandwich for not getting out of the way of this picture.
"I will also say, the headset is very heavy," Adrianne said in our Slack chat.
"VR neck! That's a thing," Nicholas said.
"Yeah I had very bad VR neck," Adrianne agreed, although we're talking about AR here. "And I had to push it up on my nose in order to see the thing. I wonder how long Shocktop spent developing that."
And with that, my dear friends, we've reached our point. The most interesting thing about this HoloLens experience of ours was not the HoloLens itself—a floating, rude orange is an interesting thing to see, but not particularly illustrative of the future potential of the device. But here's the rub: We're not in the future! We're in the now!
Before I start sounding like a crazy man shouting at an augmented reality that's not of his choosing, let me explain: So much talk about VR and AR revolves around what it COULD do, which is great. I love talking potential and the future and all that, and we shouldn't ever limit ourselves to small thinking.
But on the other hand, we're not talking enough about this chicken-egg problem. The people who can spend money on developing out a content ecosystem with no users are the people who need to get those users into the ecosystem to sell them things—namely, brands, and to a lesser extent, media.
Augmented reality sounds amazing to me. I would plunk down for HUD contact lenses that inform me all about the world around me, or that just give me bike directions without having headphones on, in a heartbeat. But the road to that delightful future is paved with stunty advertising, because that's who can afford to toss cash in a bid to be innovative and have people write blog posts like this one about their product solely because it used something new. Is that a Big Problem? Not really, someone's got to pay for it. But it also means that, more likely than not, the early days of our augmented realities will involve looking out the window for a custom floating weather report, brought to you by a coffee company.