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Hands-on with Microsoft's HoloLens: The 3D augmented reality future is now

Mark Hachman | Jan. 23, 2015
We played virtual 3D Minecraft. We walked the surface of Mars. Windows' holographic potential may still be in progress, but it's already pretty amazing.

microsoft windows holographic 3d minecraft

I walked on Mars Wednesday.

I could look down, and see its rust-colored soil beneath my feet. If I turned around, I could see rocks and soil stretching to the horizon. If I physically walked forward, I could see new objects, objects that I could explore if I knelt down.

And that was after I blew a hole in a wall and exposed a virtual Minecraft cavern. And then wired up a live light switch, helped by an engineer who drew glowing arrows in the air to highlight a particular tool.

Meet HoloLens, part of what Microsoft called Microsoft Holographic during its Wednesday morning introduction of the Windows 10 consumer preview. It's part of a project by Microsoft Research and Alex Kipman--the man who is credited with helping design the Microsoft Kinect--to rethink how users interact with machines.

"It's the virtual world blended with the real world," Kipman said during the keynote. He's exactly right. And we got to try it out.

HoloLens was conceived in the bowels of the Microsoft visitor center, and that's what a collection of reporters trooped downstairs to see. Unfortunately, Microsoft banned reporters from bringing audio or video recording equipment to document our adventure, so you'll just have to depend on Microsoft's concept shots and your own imagination.

This isn't Microsoft's version of Google Glass
The HoloLens prototype that Microsoft demonstrated onstage bears little resemblance to the development hardware down below. I was able to examine the keynote prototype closely: With an eyeshade surrounding it, it looks like something the Daft Punk duo might wear. Inside, there's a pair of lenses upon which images are projected, with a padded headband to secure it. Although Google's Glass uses an overlay to project information about the world, HoloLens feels far more interactive--it's a truer version of augmented reality.

The development version of HoloLens is much, much rougher. It's a two-piece operation, with a special "holographic processor" (HPU) mounted in what's essentially a large NUC, strapped to your chest. The goggles themselves are part of something that looks like a skullcap and is tightened to your head with straps. This hardware is far more about function than form. You'd probably call it ugly.

What you "see" is a smart version of augmented reality, confined to a rectangle about the size of a large phablet, about six inches in front of your face. Within that the magic happens: Virtual images spring to life. But the HoloLens "knows" where they are, so that you can walk around them, kneel, or stand over them, and they remain in place. It's uncanny. And a Kinect-like depth camera mounted in the HoloLens can "scan" the objects around you, too. More on that later.


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