HoloLens + World of Tanks hands-on: A rollout worth engaging
Tanks for the memories and the treadful puns.
Even without the aid of Microsoft's HoloLens headset, tanks are pretty damn amazing. How can you not respect the lovechild of a bulldozer and a really big cannon? Gamers, historians, recreation enthusiasts, actual infantrymen who've not taken cover in a fortified basement – everybody – can be blown away by a tank on some level. Having a ghost tank roll out of a wall at me, via the magic of Augmented Reality, is overkill at this point. I surrender, tanks. You've won. Take my heart already.
As a guest of Wargaming.net, the purveyors of the addictive free-to-play World of Tanks, I recently travelled to the Australian Armour & Artillery Museum in sunny Cairns, QLD. I attended to get my fix of two things: a chance to ride around in large weapons of destruction and a chance to size up the capabilities of the HoloLens. Neither of the experiences I had will be forgotten in a hurry.
The museum itself is a privately-owned mecca of mechanised armour – a Graceland for gun nuts who love over-sized guns. Imagine, if you will, a roughly L-shaped, factory-sized complex filled to burst with row upon row of artillery pieces, tanks, tank-killers, half-tracks and the odd missile platform sprinkled in for diversity's sake.
As a gamer who's played and forgotten more shooters than most, I personally found the place to be Nostalgia Central. A ton of the vehicles on display were old nemeses who'd crushed my virtual body into the mud in half a dozen WWII-era Call of Duty games. Yet another ton, comprised of the more modern Soviet tanks, had me recalling memories of being disintegrated by tungsten rounds fired in Operation Flashpoint and ARMA 2. The battlefields were fake; my low-level PTSD flashbacks were real.
It was also a bloody fascinating place to learn about. For one thing, I'm quickly made aware of an ironclad friendship between this Aussie-owned establishment and Wargaming's billionaire CEO, Victor Kislyi. He's the man who kindly donated an exceedingly rare part of our military history to the museum, the Australian Cruiser (AC) “Sentinel”, the only tank designed and mass-produced in Australia. Only 65 were built, so I can only imagine how phenomenally expensive it was to purchase, restore and FedEx it down under.
This, of course, brings us to the HoloLens solution, a way more cost-effective means of bringing scarce tanks to the punters. After finding a conspicuously empty 5x5 metre section of this armourpalooza, I'm handed a rarity in its own right: a Microsoft HoloLens developer headset. (If I drop it, I'll be killed.) It's essentially a remarkably lightweight visor-headset combo that rests comfortably on the bridge of my nose. Ignoring a nearby mate, who says the unit makes me look like a pasty version of Star Trek's Geordi La Forge, I grit my teeth and prepare to meet an almost mythical beast.
A 1:1 replica of the Sturmtiger (German for assault tiger) suddenly rolls out of thin air, large as life. Large as death, too; this technological terror fired 380mm rocket-propelled rounds – something I can see for myself as 150mm of virtual armour plating peels back to reveal the belly of the beast. Designed and produced in 1944, the Sturmtiger was meant be a bunker buster, though it was so late in the war, the Nazis were too far on the back foot for it to serve in such a role. Given how lethal it looks, this was a great result.
I bodily walk through the incredibly detailed cockpit of this self-propelled artillery piece, glancing upward to watch the slow-mo ignition of fiery rounds leaving the barrel. At one point, my HoloLens narrator cheerfully tells me that these were used in a defensive role during the bloody Warsaw Uprising. I'd also heard unconfirmed reports of one Sturmtiger taking out three very unfortunate M4 Shermans on the Western Front.
What makes this piece of history even more enticing is that only six or so were ever in production, making it even rarer than our beloved Aussie Sentinel, and an extremely unlikely addition to a far-flung museum such as this. It's one of those vehicles that every Wargamer is in love with, but was barely used in the war. Being able to leisurely pick through it to see its unique inner workings, at any angle I please, is a real treat. The 3D modellers even remembered to include the onboard crane that lifts the colossal rounds into the gun. They look like God's own Tic-Tacs.
I step “outside” and start to circumnavigate the Sturmtiger's superstructure. They were fairly short and squat, as far as armour goes, but when it comes to barrel size they're the John Holmes of the battlefield. I reach two hands up to the barrel of the 380mm Sturm Morser RW61, my fingers splayed as wide as I can manage. No fingertips touch the rim. My digits just disappear into a death-tube designed to fire 1.5 metre long, 360 kilo rounds up to 6000 metres away. It's mind-blowing getting this close to it.
HoloLens is incredible in that it knows exactly where you are and is constantly configuring itself to your position. Wargaming has obviously only scratched the surface of its potential in this non-interactive showcase, too; the same tech could be used to run operating systems at your fingertips.
I can easily imagine myself playing as a general with a God's eye view of a battlefield filled with two teams of World of Tanks players. They'd be playing elsewhere on their own gaming devices, as per usual, but I would be directing them to flank and fire using my superior position of overwatch, a headset, and perhaps some waypoints tapped onto the virtual landscape before me.
Today, that example sounds like a pipe dream larger than the circumference of a Sturmtiger's breach. HoloLens has officially sparked my imagination, though. Roll out a Mark II version soon, Wargaming. This tech's loaded with the most potent ordnance out there: potential.
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