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Microsoft revealed a suite of augmented reality (AR) software called Windows Holographic that works on any device, including a new AR headset, running Windows 10.
Unlike virtual reality, which surrounds the user with a completely virtual world, augmented reality places the virtual over the physical. Microsoft’s presentation featured people using the HoloLens headset to throw a Skype screen up on the wall, lay repair directions over a broken pipe and even build Minecraft buildings on their living room floor. A live demo featured a program for sculpting 3D printable models. The same applications will be available on laptops, phones and tablets, though they will not have the same immersive feel as the glasses.
“Imagine turning your living room into a surreal gaming environment. You might think this is crazy,” Kinect lead Alex Kipman said. “In software, nothing is impossible, and holograms can become part of our everyday life.”
The final form of the HoloLens headset — tinted, transparent glasses that resemble your grandpa’s hippest oversized shades — looks impressive compared to the competition. It will be untethered, which means it can be used anywhere without the need for a battery pack in your pocket or an actual plug. It incorporates 3D audio that adapts as you turn your head for more immersive sound.
Windows Holographic also operates without markers. Many of the augmented reality glasses on or coming to the market require special QR codes or other patterns to recognize a physical surface and stick a virtual object to it. It’s a limiting feature, but gets around the huge amount of computing that goes into seeing and recognizing the real world. Microsoft is avoiding both markers and an external battery pack, and doing it all with sensors and no cameras. Interesting.
Microsoft is incorporating some other tricky features into HoloLens, including voice and gesture control. No one has gotten gesture control exactly right thus far for virtual or augmented reality, and that has caused a lot of frustration. Many companies have been going the safer route with joysticks and touchpads. But there’s no doubt that there are applications dying for gesture control.
Gesture control demands a re-imagining of how we interact with our devices, but AR and VR companies have been shy about moving away from familiar menus, with small app icons and the need to flip between screens. Microsoft still asks you to do that in HoloLens. But it looks like the combination of voice and touch controls have been nicely thought out. In an on-stage sculpting demo, voice commands could be used to quickly copy a piece or combine them. A pinching gesture that resembled pressing down on a mouse acted as a click.
The makers of the existing augmented reality headsets should be very, very worried right now. Now the question is when will Magic Leap release its headset, and is it Microsoft that should be worried?
This article was updated on January 22 to reflect my colleague Kif Leswing’s experiences during a HoloLens demo.