I just concluded about an hours-worth of hands-on time with Microsoft’s intriguing HoloLens, an augmented reality (AR) headset that will ship publicly at roughly the same time as Windows 10. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take any pictures, record any video, or other document the experience digitally. But I did come away impressed.
It’s pretty clear that most of the Microsofties present at today’s Windows 10 event consider HoloLens to be a fist-pumping, high-fiving, game-winning surprise of epic proportions. Certainly, Microsoft announcing what it calls a holographic headset—OK, “the world’s first untethered holographic computer”—just days after Google announced it was halting sales of Google Glass is interesting in its own right. But Microsoft announcing a holographic headset is interesting, period. And weird.
My initial reaction during the event presentation wasn’t super-positive. But what I’ve come to discover is that this is the type of product that needs to be experienced to be fully-understood. And in doing so, I now believe HoloLens to be an innovation far more impressive than the voice and gesture capabilities of, say, Kinect. It really is pretty incredible.
How I got to test HoloLens will likely read better than my experiences actually using, however. The press was assembled into groups and instructed to remove all electronics, and pack up our bags and other belongings in lockers. Then we were led downstairs into a secure area—which much joking about cows being led to slaughter—and given a tutorial about the experience we were about to have.
That experience involved several activities performed with prototype HoloLens devices, which are not untethered and include big battery packs. The devices themselves are much bigger and heavier than the shipping version shown at the event, and they are difficult to take on and remove.
We all performed three demos, each with the help of at least two Microsofties, and we observed a fourth. Each was interesting in its own right.
The first was based on Minecraft. Standing and moving around in a room and gazing through the lens of the prototype HoloLens headsets, we could see 3D Minecraft graphics adorning the tables and other surfaces in the room. On a coffee table, you could see a large and ornate castle with pixelated sheep hanging around outside and a cut-through hole in the table—in holographic space only, though the effect was stunningly real—revealing the holographic world below the table.
The interaction in the Minecraft world involved protecting a smaller castle on a shelf from pixelated zombies by “air-clicking” holes into the shelf surface and blowing up TNT boxes. Later, I similarly blew up a space on the wall, and watched as Minecraft bats flew out towards me in 3D, revealing the depth of a craggy hold behind it. The whole thing was really stunning.
Other demos included a Holo Studio demo which we did not participate directly in, though we were given 3D printed versions of a USB drive shell that was made with the tool and is quite detailed. There was an amazing Mars rover demo in which I stood on the very detailed surface of Mars and performed a few simple tests. And a neat Skype demo in which someone helped me fix an electrical outlet virtually.
It’s early days, and it’s hard to know what successes this product will have—beyond the whole JPL/NASA thing, of course: that is going live later this year. But it’s not hard to see the potential. Beyond the obvious awesomeness of standing on Mars, I could see more prosaic uses of that technology, perhaps via virtual city tours and the like. In other words, the possibilities here are actually pretty vast, and much more so than with something like Kinect.