At a SXSW panel in March, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey weighed in on the HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that Microsoft revealed in January. Unsurprisingly, he was more excited about virtual reality tech like the Oculus Rift. The reason? There were better things to do in VR. “Nobody has ever proven a killer application for augmented reality. Most proposed [augmented reality] killer apps, it’s not that they’re not cool, they’re just kind of boring,” he said. “It’s things like assisting you with how to use a tool or telling you where you’re walking or where do I go, the best restaurant nearby. We’re not excited by those things as much.”
Microsoft’s demos aren’t, in fact, nearly as overwhelming as something like Oculus’ short film Lost. You can play around with art or architecture, but you’re rarely transported to another world. A Skype home maintenance demo admittedly sounds a little on the mundane side. But being boring is exactly what could help HoloLens succeed — and potentially enter the mainstream in a way that virtual reality can’t.
Judging from its performance at last week’s Microsoft Build conference, the HoloLens still isn’t exactly user-friendly. It’s got a limited range of controls and, in its latest iteration, a narrow field of view that makes it hard to see large objects. But every single demo I tried was interactive, even if it was as small as tapping to drop an origami ball. At a panel, Microsoft pulled in a medical researcher and a member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to talk about building apps for their work. The message was clear: HoloLens is as much a productivity tool as your PC or tablet.