There’s something to be said for any technology that enhances the fantasy that you’re actually inside the world of a video game, even if it’s the most boring part of a game. But that’s not what I was thinking about after Microsoft strapped a HoloLens to my face on the first morning of E3. I was thinking about reaching my next objective.
The Halo games have always done a good job of keeping players immersed. Most of the action, including the boring bits, goes by without the game ripping you out of the Master Chief’s head to show a cinematic cut scene. Think back to the opening of the original Halo: you wake up, get your bearings, and follow floating blue “nav points” to Captain Keyes, who briefs you and gives you your weapon.
It was that type of experience that Microsoft recreated at E3, the biggest gaming convention of the year.
As I hiked to the Xbox booth, I didn’t know what to expect. An employee measured my “interpupillary distance” with a gadget that looked like it was ripped out of an optometrist’s office and jotted a number down on a tag around my neck, and I started to wish I’d worn contacts. Luckily the HoloLens fit snugly around my glasses. The headset is Microsoft’s stab at augmented reality, which isn’t quite virtual reality because it overlays graphics onto the real world rather than obscuring your vision entirely. With HoloLens on, you can still see what’s in front of you, but you can usually see a digital alien or a game menu there too. HoloLens projects graphics onto reality, and it’s pretty cool.
Xbox people dressed in white lab coats welcomed us to the “Spartan program” and calibrated our HoloLens headsets, then asked if we could see the four white dots that should have appeared on the wall in front of us. I could not. It turned out it needed more calibrating, but this also exposed to me that the area of your vision that the gadget can actually show graphics over is disappointingly small.
With HoloLens on there’s a small square in the center of your field of vision where virtual elements can appear, and if you’re not staring at exactly the right spot it doesn’t work. It’s kind of the opposite of Google Glass, which displays digital elements in wearers’ peripheral vision.
Backstage at the Xbox booth, a blue arrow appeared at the far end of a hallway to lead me toward the briefing room. I took my place next to my fellow Spartans-in-training (other journalists, mostly) around a waist-high table, and the mission briefing came to life.
An actual Spartan, Commander Palmer, appeared as a hologram on the table, like a scene from the command deck of any sci-fi movie in the last two decades. Stats, numbers and unreadable text flitted around her, just like what I assume a real mission briefing is like. And she spoke to us, explaining the rules of Halo 5’s “Warzone” game mode and showing us a 3D model of the map we’d be fighting on, complete with markers for objectives and other points of interest. She zoomed in on our base and went over it all again, and showed us moving models of the game’s Hunter enemies and a new enemy unique to Halo 5. She emphasized the importance of this training exercise: should we ever meet one of these things in the field, we’ll be happy we prepared.
And then it was over. We removed our HoloLens headsets—gingerly—and we were civilians once again, about to play a game of Halo 5: Guardians on a regular TV, with an Xbox One controller.
I can’t think of a practical application for this particular tech demo, besides putting the HoloLens on in the bathroom and having it display nav points to lead you back to your couch. It could maybe display an interactive map on your coffee table, but that alone won’t justify the price of a HoloLens when (more realistically “if”) it ever actually comes to market. I’ve heard it’s cool with Minecraft, but Minecraft makes everything better, so of course it is.
Our game of Warzone—in which two teams of 12 Halo 5 players square off on huge maps with enemy aliens, tons of vehicles and complex objectives—was a chaotic mess, despite the thoroughness of our “HaloLens” briefing.
I blame myself for that. I hadn’t really been paying attention, given how concerned I’d been with moving my head around like an idiot, peering at the projections from this angle and that, testing the HoloLens headset’s limits and enjoying the spectacle.
I knew I wasn’t really Spartan material, but it was fun to pretend for a while.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with maxing his Destiny characters. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.