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.
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.
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.