Microsoft invited me to an “Unannounced Experience” so secret that they wouldn’t tell me what it was even the night before I went in. It turned out to be a demo of its HoloLens as applied to the gaming world.
The HoloLens is the company’s augmented reality headset — a device that fits neatly over your eyes and projects a small screen that can display digital images and holograms over the real world. To wear the HoloLens you have to first give Microsoft your IPD, or inter-pupilary distance, to calibrate it properly. (I was a 61.5, in case anyone wants to buy me a Hololens or a pair of Warby Parker glasses.)
The device, which is still in development, has an array of sensors that map the room around you to properly place the objects in your field of view. The potential for gaming here is clear. The HoloLens's wireless design and a display that lets you see the real world as well as the virtual one lends itself to what could basically be laser tag on steroids. Imagine: You could shoot virtual and real-world enemies in the arena.
The main problem with that is that the display on the HoloLens is pretty limited at the moment — it really looks like a digital screen in front of you, meaning it’s not taking up your whole field of vision. This can be helpful to keep you from running into objects, but it also can take you a little bit out of the game to not have the ability to put digital objects in your peripheral vision.
The first game I tried was called "Project X-Ray,” a short shooter in which monsters quite literally crawl out of the walls. The HoloLens accurately mapped the room so that portals appeared flush with the walls, opening the way for laser-shooting scorpions and other bugs to find their way in and attack. As a player, I had to shoot the enemies and duck under their attacks to defeat the game. (I’m sure I looked really cool dodging enemies that weren’t really there. Alas, Microsoft did not allow photos or video, so we’ll never know).
The gameplay designers get around the limited field of vision by using some clever sound design. I could hear the walls "cracking" behind me to my right or left to know the location of the next assault. A big red arrow also appeared in case I had a lot of trouble. You could also look "through" the wall with an x-ray mode, and shoot at the enemies by aiming with your head and pulling the trigger button on a standard Xbox controller.
The second demo I got to try was the Minecraft simulation that Microsoft showed off during its press conference. I had the option to play either on a digital screen projected on the wall or on a tabletop. On the wall, there were a few modes -- regular 2D, 3D or a mode that let me "peek" around the edges of the screen to look at the Minecraft world beyond.
Playing on the tabletop meant that I basically went into God mode. I could see the whole map rendered in 3D in front of me, walk around it, raise and lower the landscape and quite literally call down lightning to smite the Microsoft employee who was playing with me. (Or his enemies, depending on how benevolent I felt). Here, the size of the digital screen did feel a little limiting at times -- the headset in this demo slipped a little more than during Project X-Ray for whatever reason, so sometimes I'd lose part of the frame. But overall the demo made more sense for the HoloLens, since it was designed around keeping your focus on a central point, rather than looking around the room.
It was also surprisingly hard to keep my head still while aiming the cursor -- though that may be more a comment on the state of my neck muscles after several days at a convention than the technology itself.
The headset shows a lot of promise for the gaming world, but the applications seem more obvious for tasks where immersion isn't necessarily the goal,. Microsoft obviously has grander plans for the HoloLens than just gaming. In promotional materials, the company has touted it as a business tool or for education — basically a super-upgrade to the PowerPoint. But the gaming applications are clear, as long as Microsoft focuses on titles that require a central focal point. The HoloLens isn't nearly as convincing or immersive as virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift.