Recently, Microsoft have chuffed out quite a few new videos promoting their ‘Hololens’ – an upcoming system that projects images on top of the real world, viewed by you strapping what looks like a third-rate Cyclops from X-Men cosplay outfit to your face.
They’ve shown people fiddling with video clips floating in midair, people with zombie faces superimposed on them, and some Americans getting absurdly overexcited about having a tiny stadium hovering in their lounge they could squint at the Superbowl on as statistics spew out of their coffee table.
Most bizarrely, one clip shows a tiny Teddy Roosevelt vomiting on a man’s tax return (this is not even remotely made up). All of which, to me, is momentarily amusing but primarily this thing: rubbish.
If you think that sounds like I’m approaching this with a jaded (drunk) eye then you’d be spot on, but my most bilious bile is reserved for Microsoft’s efforts to push it for gaming.
Y’see, virtual reality gubbins like Oculus Rift or Sony’s Playstation VR might still be slightly damp squibs, and bloomin’ pricey ones too. But at least they’re squibs that ‘get’ the concept of gaming, and wider still the whole point of escapism.
They’re not designed to make sure you always stay grounded in dreary old reality, with its washing up, blocked toilets and tramps pawing at the window demanding you return their cider.
But wait! What if there WAS a games system that did this? That combined the artificial and real worlds in a way that didn’t actually offer any compelling reason for its existence? Well this is what Uncle Microsoft, swaggering in wearing a pair of their fancy new Hololens trousers, is all about. But like with the Kinect, they’ve actually got no trousers on at all and they’ve just liberally smeared their thighs with swarfega and gravy granules.
Ignoring the fact it looks like a clunky, static remake of Space Harrier, you have to admit the arm-mounted hologram thing blowing holes in the wall is pretty cool-looking and very Mass Effect-ish. But… Mass Effect took place in deep space in the far future, not on my kitchen worktop last Thursday.
Aliens emerging from yesterday’s takeaway empties piled up next to a gas bill wouldn’t be exciting, it’d be just plain weird. Similarly, I don't want to shoot blood-smeared rabid monsters lurking in my garage – and if I did (I don’t), I’d just encourage rats in with a load of mouldy pig guts and buy a potato gun.
I play games for escapism. I want to be on a spaceship, or in World War 2, or deep underwater. Zelda, or Assassin’s Creed, or The Division, or The Witness or whatever are cool because they take you somewhere else.
But more importantly, often to places and times impossible to ever visit in reality. Hololens does the exact opposite: by being grounded in reality it makes absolutely sure that whatever you’re supposed to be doing, you can't forget where you actually are. Ever. It's an imagination killer, not a killer app for people with imagination.
The possibilities of the Hololens system are by definition limited by the fact that the real world it projects onto is real, and so you can’t change it. Worse still, gaming appears to be a kind of 'well we'd better do this because we sell the Xbox' afterthought.
Take this Hololens gaming demo that some tech sites raved about at the end of last year, where a guy shoots stuff that crawls out of the walls around him:
Now, compare and contrast the official Hololens website and their take on gaming. Well there are those gaming classics ‘clumsy keyboard-free web search on a brick wall’, 'Tristan Bath discusses lampshades', 'Expensive design studio’s new CAD toy' and of course ‘giant cat on desk momentarily distracts you from fascinating spreadsheet’.
But actual games-wise, there’s crappo Space Harrier again, a game that appears to be ‘coin-hoarding squirrel in my fireplace’, and what looks like some sort of CSI-type experience. Or it could be a way for Microsoft to send a virtual goon to your home to strongarm you into upgrading to Windows 10 by threatening to plant your fingerprints at a murder. Certainly nothing that screams AAA title, anyway.
But even if they did all look great…consider the realities of trying to game this way in your own abode. The system detecting your arm on a well-lit, empty stage is one thing. While flailing about in a normal room at home it’ll probably map your wrist-mounted gun onto the cat’s face half the time.
I’ll admit the one game that might be fun is a Resident Evil-style shooter with the undead shambling about in your hall. But even then, that’d be ruined the first time your Mum strolled into shot and her fist emerged from a glitching zomb’s chest to offer you a custard cream.
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Not convinced? Put it this way: how many games can you think of that you play and think ‘You know what, this would be so much better if the setting for every level was my lounge?’.
Now transpose that to ALL games. Having something interrupt your suspension of disbelief, like breaking the fourth wall, works well as an occasional surprise. Disabling suspension of disbelief as a central feature? I dunno, but I can’t see it (no pun intended).
That’d be like having a cartoon ape join the cast of Eastenders and not have anyone bat an eyelid, or the next version of Call of Duty stop every 20 minutes to show you an unskippable video on the Army catering corps. As soon as the initial ‘Oooh!’ or ‘Er…’ wears off, it’d be one thing and one thing only – a jarring trigger to dump you out of the story world every time you notice it.
Let’s be honest – there’s only one sort of ‘game’ that the Hololens will really be popular for, and that’s the type that people would only order online using a false name during a private browsing session. Don’t get me wrong, the tech is impressive and has a potentially bright future – made smaller and lighter it could be the thing that Google Glass really wanted to be but wasn’t because it was awful.
It’d have great scope for doctors during operations, engineers, pilots and the like. But for gaming? It just feels like Microsoft are well into their depressingly favourite territory of doing something different and – regardless of alarm bells – sticking doggedly with it primarily for the sake of it being different, rather than it being genuinely ace. And they still haven’t put their real trousers back on either.
Mr Biffo is unwell.