Microsoft HoloLens hands on: It’s early, but it’s already nifty

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I was able to try out HoloLens at Microsoft’s headquarters on Wednesday. HoloLens is a virtual reality headset running what Microsoft thinks will be the future of computing: Windows Holographic. But it’s not Google Glass or Oculus Rift. The headset places virtual objects in the space around you, which you see through clear glass-like lenses, instead of immersing you in a completely fictional world on a screen.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of the headsets I tested, although concept images and renders are available from HoloLens.com. That’s because Microsoft didn’t let any cameras into the HoloLens demos, given that HoloLens isn’t that close to being a product yet (and letting the unwashed masses test a not-ready-for-prime-time product can be embarrassing). Although Microsoft said it will come out as part of the Windows 10 rollout — billed as sometime in 2015 — the developer’s versions I was able to test out are not the slick all-in-one devices Microsoft showed off on stage and Wired wrote about.


The version I tested was a complete prototype, warts and all: The HoloLens hardware was strapped to a fitting mechanism more often found on climbing helmets, and the “first of its kind” “Holographic Processing Unit” was a little smaller than a Mac Mini and needed to be worn around my neck. And it wasn’t exactly mobile; the dev unit I tested needed to have a connected wire for power. I understand this was a prototype unit for testing and development, but that doesn’t bode well for the product’s battery life when it’s eventually released.

But what I did get to test out was compelling. I “donned” the device and tried out four applications for HoloLens: HoloBuilder, an augmented reality sibling of Minecraft; HoloStudio, a 3D modeling application; Onsight, a Mars simulation developed in conjunction with NASA’s JPL labs; and a version of Skype.

HoloBuilder was the only game I tried out, and suddenly Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang made a lot more sense. The app makes a room in your home into a Minecraft world. Using my line of sight as a cursor, I dug through a table, blew up a wall, and explored my environment. HoloLens knows the surfaces around you and it did a great job of sensing depth — which is one of the big advancements that [company]Microsoft[/company] is touting. After I blew up a wall, I found a whole new lava-covered world which really looked like it was inside the wall. You use voice commands like “shovel” to call up tools.

HoloStudio is a modeling app that lets you build 3D models in space. According to Microsoft, after you build your model, you can 3D print it and make it a real object — several Microsoft people said that HoloLens was the best “print preview” for 3D printing.

But the models you can create in HoloLens usually have multiple colors and parts, and unless you know how to break it down into components a 3D printer can handle, you’ll probably have to send your HoloStudio files to a professional 3D printer to make them into reality.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”908722″]HoloBuilder was the only game I tried out, and suddenly Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang made a lot more sense.[/pullquote]

I didn’t get to use HoloStudio but I saw a 30-minute demo. From what I saw, the interface really reminded me of the Sims — colorful, friendly, and intuitive. It did not look like a professional 3D modeling program like CAD; it looked like consumer software.

One thing you have to realize when you don HoloLens is that there aren’t any cameras on you; When you interact with other people, you might be able to see them, but they can’t see you. That really came to light when using Skype on HoloLens.

I videoconferenced with someone who gave me instructions on how to install a light switch. I could see him, since he was running Skype on a conventional device with a front-facing camera. He could see what I could see, but he couldn’t see me. I pinned his visage right about the problem I needed to solve and he gave me intelligent instructions about what to do. It’s easy to see HoloLens being used in industrial capacities in the same way.

Microsoft Hololens demo

NASA clearly thinks there’s some potential here too, and it helped Microsoft develop Onsight, an app which interfaces with the software that NASA uses to plan what the Mars rover Curiosity is doing. HoloLens threw me onto a very detailed surface replication of Mars, down to individual rocks. I could click on rocks using an “air tap” gesture and explore the environment.

When wearing HoloLens and checking out a computer running NASA’s software, I found I could see the screen and work on a conventional desktop. The demo even included an example of dragging the mouse off the desktop’s screen and into my simulated Mars landscape.

I conferenced with a JPL employee, presumably wearing HoloLens, who demonstrated how HoloLens could help scientists from around the world collaborate on the Curiosity mission. I could see where he was looking, and talk to him with minimal lag about what Curiosity should do next. But remember there are no cameras on you. The avatar of the JPL employee I saw was a golden rendered human figure, reminiscent of a yellower version of Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen.

HoloLens appears to be using a prism projector to display virtual objects, which is the same display technology that Google Glass uses. You can only see virtual objects — holograms — in the center of your field of vision, and there’s a outlined rectangle in which virtual objects can appear. So while I was travelling to Mars, I still saw the Microsoft offices in the periphery of my vision. But after a while, I found myself immersed. I found the images clear and sharp, and there wasn’t a lot of lag displaying new virtual objects when I quickly looked at something else. The HoloLens also has two little speakers that rest just above your ears.

I also found that there’s a bit of a problem with eye contact while wearing HoloLens. Many of the Microsoft demoers didn’t want to look in my eyes for extended periods of time — in their defense, I did look like a cyborg — which may be why Microsoft is covering the final design with a big Marshawn Lynch-style tinted eyeguard.

HoloLens, Microsoft tells me, is a full Windows 10 computer. But there are a lot of unanswered questions.

Microsoft did not offer information on availability, price, what the “HPU” includes, any specs really, or any gestures you can do beyond the simple “air tap.” We don’t really know which sensors are included, or the resolution of the optics, or how standard Windows tasks, like writing a Word document, will work on HoloLens.

But that wasn’t the point of Microsoft’s big reveal. Very few companies have a working augmented reality product ready to be launched to the public, and Microsoft just leapfrogged all of them.

9 Responses to “Microsoft HoloLens hands on: It’s early, but it’s already nifty”

  1. The 4 demonstrations MS came up with was smart PR, they at least demonstrated its use case potential and why this thing matters.

    This looks far more compelling than Google Glass or Oculus Rift, just saying.

  2. I’ve been using my developer set of Meta 1 Spaceglasses (spaceglasses.com) for several weeks now and I’m shocked that this sad excuse for “journalism” didn’t even bother to do any research at all. Or else you’d have found out that Meta came out with all this stuff way before Microsoft, and they have working developer units out there. In fact they’re having a code-a-thon in San Fran RIGHT NOW which is probably WHY Microsoft did their announcement yesterday, to steal Meta’s thunder and try to usurp all the clout, in typical Microsoftian fashion.

    Of course, no mention in any of these hype articles that Meta is already shipping its Spaceglasses to developers with all the same kind of features that Microsoft basically announced as if it invented all this stuff.

    Anyway you’re right about one thing, nobody has any AR glasses that are anywhere close to being ready to ship to customers. Right now the companies are just trying to build up so they can get the big corporate accounts like NASA etc. Can’t blame ’em.

    In my professional opinion (and yes, I’m right), it’s going to be at least five more years before you see any pair of AR glasses that does not require to be tethered to a computer (wired or wirelessly) and that runs at a smooth frame-rate and isn’t glitchy as hell. Trust me, the first ones are going to suck pretty bad.

    Eventually, in several years from now, maybe 10 or more, you’ll finally see a wearable glasses that won’t suck, and I would not be surprised if it’s someone other than Microsoft or Meta who does it right. Maybe a company whose name starts with “A”. But we’ll see won’t we?

    But trust me, what you are seeing here is a whole lot of hype. They’re just kind of piling together existing technologies like the Kinect and their 3D game engines to cobble up some kind of augmented reality stack. But there’s a reason you didn’t get to see any footage of the actual thing working, because it sucks right now, trust me, I have Meta’s one and it’s pretty far from what the consumer will ever see. I’m sure Microsoft isn’t any farther along because all the components are not a cohesive whole.

    In order to really do it right, the processing power of the AR unit needs to nearly be on the scale of the visual system of the human brain and it needs to all fit into a pair of glasses. Good luck with that.

    When you first try some of this AR stuff it’s going to be like, “Oh that’s cool… but not really.” Big business customers like NASA and hospitals and higher ed will buy lots of the initial ones but it’s not going to be a consumer thing anytime soon.

    Just saying’.

    • Emmanuel De Leon

      “In my professional opinion (and yes, I’m right), it’s going to be at least five more years before you see any pair of AR glasses that does not require to be tethered to a computer (wired or wirelessly) and that runs at a smooth frame-rate and isn’t glitchy as hell. Trust me, the first ones are going to suck pretty bad.”

      You could not be more wrong, Microsoft HoloLens is working very good. Trust me, I work on the project :)

  3. They didn’t really leapfrog anyone if it’s that unpolished.
    If it’s not full field of vision then it’s like a bunch of other devices that are in far more advanced stages on the hardware side.
    Even the renders are quite a lot bulkier than other products.
    Guess i thought it’s more advanced than this since the press coverage has been ridiculously positive.
    I assume you have no idea what projection tech it uses (LCoS, laser, DLP) but any clue how may cams – funny how Google Glass is bashed by some other sites because of it’s cams ,while here they don’t even notice the cam(s).
    If it’s a discrete device it”s gonna be bulky but if they focus on AR they do need some processing power in it so might as well do it this way. An additional wired version might not be a bad idea, we are used with wired headphones so if it’s gonna cut the weight and price in half it would be a viable option.
    For office work an actual keyboard or a virtual keyboard would do, ofc virtual is a bit tricky.
    Price is a big concern given how M$ prices it’s smartphones and tablets. For a discrete device with 2 projectors they’ll end up with up to 200$ BOM ( more or less depending on what they use for AR processing a specialized chip or the GPU in a high end smartphone SoC, LTE or not , resolution for the projectors. Glass was clearly well bellow 100$ and a wired device would be much cheaper. Guess they could do AR on a dedicated chip and use a sub 10$ SoC , no LTE and they save 30-40$ but it’s likely to end yp at 500-600$ unless M$ decides it wants market share and goes a bit lower.400$ would still be too much for wide adoption, 300$ might be good enough at least in the developed world if they get a few “killer apps” by launch but that won’t happen.
    Oculus, if they drop the external camera that just ruins it , could be much more affordable. With a BOM of well under 100$, FB could sell it at 100-200$ just to make sure they reach tens on millions per quarter fast. Hell they should give the first million units away for free to anyone that likes Oculus on FB and that’s pretty much all the marketing budget they would need for the launch, while also making sure a lot of people and their friends get to experience it and spread the word.
    To fight that , M$ would need a wired version and even then,their device is less useful for current games and media viewing.
    And i guess we’ll have to see if Google might not have new glasses ready to launch at MWC or I/O. Unsure if they just gave up or they stopped Glass sales because the launch of a retail product is near.

      • Thanks for the details.
        Seems like a lot but likely not high res,i would assume higher res than the ones in the Amazon phone but no need for too much.
        The big problem with this is that it is cool and fun but do you really need it? If it was full vision and maybe had the ability to turn the screen opaque when needed, would be quite a lot more. But as it is they really need to find something to justify the purchase for the average consumer. At the likely price it can’t be an impulse buy so it could end up being way cool but selling poorly, just in some niches.
        Ofc to be fair it is one interesting attempt and can’t wait for more details.
        It’s not gonna be easy for the segment to go huge. Oculus had (had when they didn’t had the camera) simplicity and a low cost (just a screen without touch and a few small chips) , plus they clearly target gaming and media. There are hundreds of millions of PC gamers, Intel recently claimed over 700 millions and even if you accept that the actual number is half that, you still got a huge market where Oculus could become a must and slowly expand the TAM with more functionality and future hardware. Glass could have been cheap , would have been a difficult task to convince users to wear it 24/7 but pushing it into the impulse buy territory makes a big difference.

    • “They didn’t really leapfrog anyone if it’s that unpolished.”
      The goal of yesterday’s event was ultimately NOT to sell Hololenses; it was to demonstrate to the world that “this is not the stodgy, irrelevant Microsoft of the Ballmer years, ever more irrelevant and on its way to being a clone of IBM and SAP; we’re hip, we’re relevant, we’re cooler than you can possibly imagine”.

      Given that goal, they hit it out of the park, and not just with hololens. (And I say that as an Apple fan, and someone who is somewhat dubious about their universal apps strategy.) We can quibble about the details, but MS has established that they are interesting enough to follow, and even to hate once again, which is a rather better position to be in that their Blackberry-like position six months ago, where it seemed a waste of energy to even care about them, whether your attitude was love or hate.

      Showing something unpolished was a risk (which may well blow up to some extent; if they cannot ship in 2015 plenty of people will mock them as the good old Microsoft of the past, always ready with a concept video, somewhat slower with a real product). But, given their PR situation last week, it was a risk worth taking.

  4. Prince Zirk

    “The use of Hololens Display to Microsoft revealed the Hololens augmented reality headset is really impressive.

    Similar to this article, I have found another article that is also talking about projection of 3D images in air. The article mentions that Korean tech giant LG has been working on this direction. They have filed a patent application that explains that LG will use floating lens and PDLC glasses to create 3d images in air.

    I read about this technology here in this article – http://greybmusings.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/lg-projecting-3d-images-in-air-those-can-be-touched/

    This technology can be utilized in boardrooms and even in classroom to make students to understand a topic better. The best thing I found that we can even interact with these 3d images in air.
    I think this project by LG can be turned into reality. The patent mentions everything clearly i.e. about the procedure to make a device that can work on their patented technology.”

  5. turnerwfu

    Exciting! I would love to see it for myself, it sounds like something that is fully appreciated when experienced. I wonder what the early movers will be for utilizing this.