Microsoft HoloLens retro review: What made it great, and what a new HoloLens needs to succeed

Unearthing Microsoft’s HoloLens feels a little like walking the decks of the Titanic. Three years ago, Microsoft’s augmented-reality headset ignited the imaginations of consumers and developers alike with its promise of lifelike animated sprites that could perch on real-world objects. Then… it sank.

It’s almost criminal that Microsoft’s original HoloLens demos never saw the light of day. Bending down to peer “inside” a coffee table into the Minecraft underworld was an utterly transformative experience. But at least Microsoft’s vision of using the HoloLens as a business tool apparently is alive and well.

As is the HoloLens. Because Microsoft never sold its device to consumers, PCWorld never formally reviewed it. But we have the original on hand. As Microsoft is expected to bring forth the next generation of HoloLens at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this weekend, we gave it another run-through, focusing on what made it best—and what could be better.

Microsoft HoloLens Mark Hachman / IDG

In this shot of the Microsoft HoloLens, you can see what Microsoft calls the “environment understanding cameras” that map the world around you, as well as the front-facing 2MP camera.

A consumer failure with corporate potential 

As a consumer device, the HoloLens is dead. Only one Microsoft Store on the West Coast even has a HoloLens in stock for demonstration purposes. Microsoft’s remaining HoloLens supplies are sold through Insight, a solutions provider, Microsoft support reps said. On Microsoft’s site, the “Commercial Suite” version of the HoloLens costs a cool $5,000. 

Microsoft HoloLens case Mark Hachman / IDG

The HoloLens shipped in a hard plastic case.

But commercial it was not, back in 2015. Removing it from its cloth-covered plastic shell three years later reveals a lovingly engineered piece of consumer hardware. The HoloLens perches fairly comfortably on my head, supported by a removeable nose piece and my ears. Clicking a dial adjusts the tightness of the fit. There’s an optional head strap, too, if you’d prefer taking its 1.28-pound weight on the crown of your head. I wore the HoloLens pretty solidly for about three hours in one stretch. While I was conscious of the weight, I never felt uncomfortable.

Microsoft HoloLens top Mark Hachman / IDG

The HoloLens audio is controlled by a pair of buttons on one side; you can control the brightness of the display with the others.

The HoloLens includes built-in speakers, which can be adjusted with a pair of buttons on one side. On the other, a similar pair of buttons controls the brightness of the display. An optional headphone jack is available too. Underneath the power button is a row of pinprick-sized holes, which light to indicate the battery level. (The HoloLens drains fast, and our unit provided about three to four hours of charge in fairly constant use.)

All that pales in comparison to the focal point of the HoloLens: the display. While virtual-reality devices like the first HTC Vive tethered you to the PC by way of a display and power cord, the augmented-reality HoloLens superimposes the display over the real world—understanding where physical surfaces are, and placing objects accordingly. You’re free to roam wherever you’d like. It’s magical, when it works. 

Microsoft HoloLens wheel Mark Hachman / IDG

A dial ratchets the HoloLens tightly around your head. I preferred the weight (1.2) pounds to rest on my nose and the brim, and from there my ears. An optional head strap can take some of the weight, too.

By now, the hardware underlying the HoloLens is fairly well understood, at least in broad strokes. In terms of resolution, though, the lack of a PC-powered display means that the HoloLens essentially provides 720p of resolution per eye. Combine that with the relatively limited field of view, and that’s where the experience gets complicated.

The first fix: Field of View (FOV)

HoloLens works its magic by suspending holograms, or what appears to be a three-dimensional object, virtually in front of you. There’s not that much difference between the image that a monitor paints on the glass in front of your eyes and the image that the HoloLens paints on each lens in front of you.

Microsoft hololens field of view fov Mark Hachman / IDG

Standing about five feet away, the HoloLens field of view is about the size of this window.  (The HoloLens front-facing camera is offset, with a slightly wider angle of view, so it captures more than you see.) The photos you’ll see here are shot with the HoloLens mixed-reality camera, overlaying holograms onto the real world.

The difference is what HoloLens does next. It uses a front-facing camera to scan the room in front of you, interpreting what it sees as a three-dimensional mesh, then attaches the hologram to that mesh itself. Using the HoloLens usually means anchoring various windows (such as Settings, for example) to a nearby surface, then using any three-dimensional open space near you as your HoloLens playspace. The illusion of physically walking around the hologram, as well as being able to anchor it or have it interact with real-world surfaces, fools your eyes into thinking it’s real.

Microsoft hololens field of view fov Mark Hachman / IDG

The farther back you are, the more you can see. This is about eight feet away, against a different door.

That illusion is especially effective if the hologram remains in the field of view—the rectangle that serves as the HoloLens screen. The FOV covers much of the width of a door at a few feet, or about 50 degrees. Anything outside of it, though, can’t be entirely seen, and this instantly reminds you of the limits the HoloLens FOV imposes.

Microsoft HoloLens t-rex Mark Hachman / IDG

Back up far enough, and even large holograms like this Tyrannosaurus Rex can fit into your field of view (FOV).

Because the HoloLens “knows” where in virtual space a hologram exists, it’s possible to have one directly in front of you and another to the side or rear. It’s trying to turn and find the second hologram when frustration can kick in. (A setting allows you to trash all holograms loaded into your scene, even the ones you can’t see.)  But the first-generation HoloLens could never convincingly offer up the illusion of, say, a forest, as the HoloLens lacks the capability to swamp your peripheral vision. 

The FOV problem isn’t just a visual issue. Interacting with holograms and apps typically requires “air clicking” a hologram or window, in much the same way you’d click a mouse. Triggering the Start menu requires a “bloom” hand gesture, like a flower opening. In both cases, though, the HoloLens must be able to detect your gesture. (There are two alternatives—voice control and a small Bluetooth “clicker”—but gestures are the most common way of interacting.)

Microsoft HoloLens multiple holograms Mark Hachman / IDG

Holograms can either be “two-dimensional” Windows apps, or full-fledged three-dimensional objects. Using a two-handed gesture, you can place these windowed apps along surfaces, where HoloLens will remember them, even if you’re facing the other way. (The front-facing camera is only 2MP, so the resolution here is lousy. They look better in real life.)

Anyone who’s used the HoloLens, then, would rate the field-of-view as the primary area for improvement. If I were designing the next-generation HoloLens, however, I’d strike a compromise, offering users the option of dialing down the peripheral detail.

In the VR space, this is known as foveated rendering, concentrating the processing power on rendering detail where your eyes are looking. That’s probably a necessity for a new HoloLens, too—more on that in a minute.  But I also appreciated the blank space at the edge of my vision, either to glance at my PC’s screen, a person, or something else. If Microsoft were to improve the HoloLens, I’d leave the option to “fade out” the periphery, providing a more grounded sense of place to the user.

The second fix: Resolution

It’s no secret that early VR users suffered from vertigo, caused by the latency between what the displays rendered and what the user “expected” to see. Though there’s still some noticeable render lag within the HoloLens, the fact that your vision tracks real-world objects helps prevent any nausea.

Microsoft HoloLens actiongram Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s a little easier to tell that’s actor George Takei when using the HoloLens, and an app called Actiongram. But if Microsoft is striving for realism, more resolution is a must.

I still experienced discomfort. Dialing up the brightness of the display is a must. Even then, however, holograms can be low-resolution, and sometimes laggy when interacting with you. After an hour or two, my eyes ached from the strain. A reported processor spec bump must happen to ensure a next-gen HoloLens will be comfortable to use.

The resolution isn’t merely a visual issue, either. HoloLens maps your environment, applying a very coarse surface mesh over walls, desks, tables, and more. (Objects can be “anchored” to a surface like a desk, and certain games will actually use these surfaces as part of the experience.) A spartan workspace is easily accommodated. But as your environment moves further away from minimalism, HoloLens struggles to keep up.

My basement office, full of monitors and boxes and peripherals and lamps, would probably give organizational guru Marie Kondo the cold sweats. To compensate, HoloLens would occasionally draw a big black surface that would interrupt the scene. A next-gen HoloLens would be well served by increasing the number and density of the three-dimensional mesh of points it uses to creates a virtual space.

The third fix: UI

Certain elements of the HoloLens UI haven’t held up over time, including the “nose first” method of navigating. Too much navigation involves steering a cursor from point to point by slightly moving your head. It’s especially painful when you have to enter a Windows or Wi-Fi password: Manually pushing the cursor from letter to letter is a major pain.

microsoft hololens start menu resized Mark Hachman / IDG

Navigating the Start menu through the bloom gesture is fine. But when you have to navigate, letter by letter, to spell out a password—ugh. (Again, the HoloLens camera is awful, but there’s no way to take a photo without it.)

Microsoft’s first-generation HoloLens works around this somewhat through voice recognition, where many simple tasks, such as opening the Settings menu, can be performed by merely saying a word, like “settings.” But modern VR equipment is beginning to include eye tracking, which can save time navigating from element to element. If Microsoft is developing a next-generation HoloLens, it would be a shame if eye tracking were excluded.

The HoloLens voice recognition works well, but even it can be unnecessarily confusing. Some commands can be performed simply by saying the command; others require you to invoke Cortana beforehand, which makes little sense. Still, I found I relied on voice more and more to avoid tediously steering the cursor.

microsoft hololens clicker Mark Hachman / IDG

This little gizmo is the HoloLens “clicker,” which you can click to input choices, or “twist” to scroll. The important aspect of the clicker is that you can click without the HoloLens camera seeing your movements, which is far more comfortable than simply air-clicking all of the time.

Lifting your hand to constantly “air click” gets old, too. But scrolling is the worst, requiring you to air-click and drag through the minimal field of view. Microsoft’s optional “clicker” basically acknowledged that air navigation failed. But couldn’t Microsoft have tried something a bit different, such as “clicking” by audibly snapping your fingers?

The fourth fix: More apps

If you think the Windows app store looks empty, you should see the HoloLens aisle. At one point, UWP apps like Twitter were considered to be the future, traversing PC, phone, and HoloLens alike. 

Microsoft HoloLens HoloTour painting Mark Hachman / IDG

It’s just another hologram, but opening the Rome tour on Microsoft Studios’ own HoloTour via this painting is a great start, especially as it seamlessly works its way into…

You can exhaust most of the best HoloLens apps in an afternoon. HoloTour offers genuinely interesting 360-degree recorded video tours of Machu Picchu and Rome, complete with a recorded tour guide. Step back, though, and they aren’t much different from a HoloLens-specific version of Myst, as you virtually explore hotspot after hotspot. Holo Galaxy isn’t much better, with a cursory 3D view of the solar system and other stellar points of interest.

Microsoft HoloLens HoloTour Rome Mark Hachman / IDG

…A 360-degree video tour of Rome. Yes, you’ve probably seen 360-degree video before. But it’s all nicely presented, with a friendly, informative narrator.

RoboRaid, jaw-dropping in its time, creates virtual bugs and drones that literally crawl out from your HoloLens-mapped walls. You’ll need to use oral commands, your air-click skills, and the ability to hop nimbly about the room to avoid laser blasts. It’s still a lot of fun, but not too different from the “shooting gallery” games that tend to be bundled with VR gear. 

Microsoft HoloLens RoboRaid Mark Hachman / IDG

In RoboRaid, robotic bugs and drones crawl out of the walls, firing laser blasts, which you must physically avoid either by ducking or moving out of the way. Air clicking returns fire.

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Momentum Aria LED Floodlight with Wi-Fi Camera review: Cheap, but far from the best value

Camera/floodlight combos are terrific because they provide home security via both lighting and video surveillance. But you’ll find better executions of this concept than the Momentum Aria.

Selling for less than $170 at Amazon and Home Depot, the Momentum Aria is a bit cheaper than more established competitors like the Maximus Camera Floodlight (our current top pick in this category) and the Ring Floodlight Cam, but that doesn’t make it a strong value.

First, the device is made almost entirely of plastic. Many devices in this category use copious amounts of plastic in their construction, but Momentum uses plastic for virtually everything. Ring, in contrast, uses metal in the base of its Ring Floodlight Cam, as well as in the arms and hoods for its LED floodlights. I also found the Aria more difficult to install than either of the Maximus or the Ring.

momentum aria screenshot daytime Michael Brown / IDG

The Aria’s camera delivers 1080p video with a 140-degree field of view.

But Momentum’s design choice is most problematic in the ball joints that connect the LED lamp hoods and the camera to the unit’s base. These joints rely on friction to hold them in position. They are very difficult to adjust and they don’t move far. I also would venture to guess that years of exposure to sunlight will loosen these up to the point the lights and camera won’t stay aimed where you point them.

If you’re considering incorporating the Aria into your smart home, you’ll want to know that Momentum currently doesn’t offer an Alexa skill and it’s not compatible with Google Assistant either. If you want to manually turn the floodlight on or off or view a live video feed or recorded clips, you’ll need to pull out your Android or iOS smart device.

Buggy software

You’re supposed to be able to program the app with rules for when the floodlight comes on and when the camera records video, but creating anything but the simplest of rules is an exercise in frustration. Unless you’re at home 24/7, you probably want the camera to record video every time something moves in front of the camera. That’s easy enough, just create a rule with one element that says (essentially) when motion is detected, record video and send a notification to the app; a second element that indicates you want this rule to be in effect Monday through Sunday; and a third element that indicates this rule should be in effect all day.

momentum screenshots Michael Brown / IDG

The Momentum app’s home screen is in the center. The screens on either side illustrate how rules are defined.

In most cases, you’ll want the floodlight to be turned on when it’s dark, but creating a rule to accomplish that goal is much more problematic. First, you can’t create a rule that turns on the light when motion is detected. You can only program it by the day of the week and the time of day. In most parts of the country, it’s dark twice each day: At night and early in the morning. But the Momentum app relies strictly on clock times, there is no dusk-to-dawn setting.

The app won’t allow you to set a time range that spans from one day to the next—say, from 8:00 at night to 6:00 the following morning. It does allow you to create two time ranges for each day—6:00 am to 7:30 am, and then 8:00 pm to 11:30 pm, for example—or at least it’s supposed to. This absolutely did not work for me. No matter what times I set for the second time range, the app would change it to something else when I saved the rule. My work-around for this problem was to create two separate rules, one for the morning and a second for the evening. It’s a kludge, but it worked.

It’s not all bad news

The Aria does have some good features, with its luminaire element being one of its best. Momentum says its dual floodlights produce a combined 5,000 lumens of brightness. That’s brighter by far than both the Maximus Camera Floodlight (2,400 lumens) and the Ring Floodlight Cam (3,000 lumens). Those LEDs can also be dimmed for parties. Unfortunately, the stiffness of the ball joints on the Aria’s floodlights will likely prevent you from aiming the light precisely where you need it. The same goes for the camera, which I couldn’t position so that it would capture even the profile of a person standing in front of the front door of the house I tested it at. When shorter people came up the steps to the door, I could see only the tops of their heads.

momentum leds at night Michael Brown / IDG

One of the Momentum Aria’s high points is its very bright (5,000 lumens combined) LED floodlight.

Apart from the problems I had positioning the camera, the camera itself is pretty good, offering 1080p video resolution and a 140-degree field of view. But unlike another of the better floodlight cameras I’ve tested—the Netatmo Presence—the Aria can’t differentiate between people, animals, and cars. The camera’s motion sensor covers a 270-degree arc, but you can’t edit its field of view to wall off trees, shrubs, and other things that might cause false alerts.

On the bright side, no pun intended, the Aria produces infrared illumination for night vision. And it supports two-way audio, so you can speak to and hear a person standing in front of the camera, but unlike the Maximus, there are no preset phrases that you can have it play. And while it is outfitted with a 110dB siren, the siren can only be triggered manually from within the app.

momentum aria screenshot night Michael Brown / IDG

The Momentum Aria is equipped with infrared LEDs for night vision. That’s a feature you don’t always get in this type of device.

Cloud storage options

Video clips are date- and time-stamped, although the latter is in the form of a 24-hour military-style clock. The app lets you pause video, skip forward and back in 5-second increments, and you can download the videos to your smartphone.

As is typical in this space, Momentum offers cloud storage for recorded video, and it’s relatively generous: You get 24 hours of storage for free and for an unlimited number of cameras. The presence of a microSD card slot for local video storage is much less common, but it is welcome—even if you do need to provide your own card (up to 128GB).

momentum aria app video playback Michael Brown / IDG

The video playback screen in the Momentum app.

There are three optional cloud-storage plans for those want more time to look back at their 20-second video clips: The Plus plan saves videos for up to seven days, but you’re limited to two cameras. It costs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year if paid annually. The Premium plan stores video from up to five cameras for 30 days and costs $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. The Pro plan stores video from up to 10 cameras and costs $19.99 per month or $199.99 per year. Free one-month trials are offered with each plan.

Not the best value

The Momentum Aria will save you a few bucks compared to bigger names like Maximus, Netatmo, and Ring, but you’ll be getting a lower-quality product with far fewer features and much less performance. It’s just not a great value.

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Save up to 30% on your power bill with Arcadia Power

Given the chance, most of us would jump at the opportunity to bring down our power bills. But, there’s a prevailing assumption that doing so involves dealing with steep upfront costs before the savings actually come in. Arcadia Power presents a different solution, however, and it’s willing to give new users $20 off their first utility bill for trying out the platform.

At its core, Arcadia Power is a free platform that connects homeowners and renters to clean, low-cost energy solutions. Users who sign up become part of a community of more than 150,000 members, driving the platform’s purchasing power and allowing Arcadia Power to negotiate for lower monthly payments for green energy.

Members start by connecting their local utility account to the platform and enrolling in clean energy and savings programs. From there, Arcadia Power does the heavy lifting, ensuring each member’s electricity usage supports renewable energy sources.

Price Alerts leverage the community’s buying power to automatically find and connect eligible members to lower electricity rates. Arcadia Power also helps members save by connecting them to community solar projects, as well as home efficiency solutions.

Using their Arcadia Power dashboard, members can then track their impact, bills, renewable energy projects, usage and savings.

After switching, Arcadia Power members have saved as much as 30% off their power bills, all while helping keep the planet clean and healthy. For those interested in seeing how Arcadia Power can make a dent in their power bills, the platform is offering new members $20 off their first power bill by signing up here.

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HP's President's Day Sale Continues With up to 56% off Select Products – Deal Alert

In honor of President’s Day, HP’s online store has slashed prices up to 56% on various items, with free shipping included. On the list is the HP Pavilion Laptop – 15T which has been discounted $420 down to $579.99.  The budget-friendly 14z laptop is even budget-friendlier at just $189.99, down from $329.99. The HP Probook 640 G4 Notebook PC is slashed 53% from $1310 to just $609. There are many more discounts as well, so browse the full list of deals at HP’s online store right here.

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Logitech brings back its MX518 gaming mouse with an updated version for 2019

More than a dozen years after Logitech’s MX518 gaming mouse debuted, Logitech is bringing it back.

The MX518 wired gaming mouse boasted dpi improvements over the iconic Logitech MX510. According to Logitech, the MX518 became one of its most beloeved gaming mice of all time, enough to spark a revival. Now, the “reborn” MX518 is available for preorder for $59.99, direct from Logitech. 

Of course, it’s been upgraded with Logitech’s latest hardware: a HERO 16K sensor inside, with resolution from 100 to 16,000 dpi and 400+ ips (inches per second) across that range. There’s zero smoothing or acceleration, Logitech said. Users can either customize their own dpi settings, or scroll through one of five pre-selected dpi settings (400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400) using buttons above and below the mouse wheel.

Logitech mx518 side shot Logitech

Naturally, the mouse is corded to reduce latency. The USB report rate is 1,000MHz (1ms) across the 7-foot cord.

Inside the mouse is a 32-bit ARM chip, compete with a small bit of memory designed to store up to five different profiles. All five of the MX518’s dedicated buttons are programmable, including the two side buttons. Because the profile is stored on the mouse itself, a user can take the MX518 to a new PC and the profile will persist.

The MX518 mouse itself measures 5.16 x 2.87 x 1.69 inches and weighs 3.6 ounces. It’s available in a black “Nightfall” color scheme.

Why this matters: As a former MX510 owner, I can personally endorse Logitech’s mouse—even if we haven’t tested the new MX518. Logitech made a smart decision here, bringing back a beloved mouse with updated features.

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