Although most of spotlight on headsets is in the virtual reality department right now, let’s not forget that other aspect; “augmented reality,” or AR. It’s a concept that was pioneered—and ultimately abandoned—not too long ago by Google with their “Glass” experiment, but now Microsoft has jumped on the bandwagon to present “HoloLens,” their latest gimmick to combat the VR craze that’s been building up as retail models slowly filter into the market this year.
The HoloLens is an interesting concept, taking the digital worlds we interact with on the screen and “putting them into the world” by projecting them onto the HoloLens goggles. In many ways, it’s similar to the AR games available on the 3DS and even Vita that require a card placed on a flat surface so the handhelds have an anchor or reference point on which to project the image. However, instead of viewing those images on a screen in your hand, you’re “seeing” them directly on the surface in front of you, thanks to the way HoloLens is supposed to accurately measure space, and compensate for your own individual movement. In other words, if you wear HoloLens and see a virtual coffee mug sitting on your real coffee table, you’ll be able to get up, walk around and always see that coffee mug on the table.
On initial inspection, the gaming possibilities of something like HoloLens seem more limited than what VR offers. VR, after all, puts you “in” the game, whereas AR takes the game out of the monitor and puts it in your room. In a sense, it’s a lot easier to put you “in” Revolution-era Paris virtually, than it is to somehow turn your room into a Parisian street. In VR you’ll still be able to climb to the top of a cathedral in Assassin’s Creed, but attempting that on your man cave/office/living/bed room wall will simply result in embarrassment or perhaps even injury.
That, however, doesn’t mean that putting game elements into the real world is a bad idea, just a more challenging one.
Of course the easiest example of how a HoloLens AR game would work would be the infamous “Holochess” sequence first shown in Star Wars: A New Hope. For years, people have dreamed of an animated, combat chess game of glowing light they played in a room with a friend. HoloLens, while not a true holographic projector, can still create a similar effect. Taking the Holochess concept, this extends to ALL board games, many of which have digital versions anyway. Imagine the convenience of carrying all your board games digitally, in the on board storage of HoloLens, while still retaining the luxury of meeting up with friends in real life at a home or café for a round of Risk, Monopoly or even card games like Magic The Gathering. Suddenly, the digital version of Magic, with its exotic backgrounds and animations can be right there on your table, as you pull and place your cards from your deck.
Then there’s another exciting alternative. In the same way that RTS games like StarCraft get a new perspective when played as an AR game on your coffee or dining room table, just imagine what AR could do for old fashioned table top games. Anyone that remembers turn-based combat classics like FASA’s original Mechwarrior or Games Workshop’s Warhammer games will recall that grid maps, figurines and sometimes even miniature landscapes were required to get a “premium” tabletop experience. Augmented reality systems do away with the maps, miniature landscaping and figurine construction and painting that was part of the lengthy preparation process for such games. Now, everything is stored digitally, and people simply put on the HoloLens and voila’, the entire game is set up, precisely measured by the HoloLens gear to fit on your game tabletop for the evening.
Of course, we still have yet to see whether Microsoft’s HoloLens gear is actually capable of working as precisely as its aspirational videos make it out to be. But it’s got some interesting and novel applications for gamers who do more than just play everything in first person.