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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.

There are several ways way of interacting with what you see. "Clicks" are triggered by holding your hand out a short distance from your face, and raising and lowering your index finger in a gesture. It then "clicks" where you're looking, using a cursor that follows your gaze. HoloLens worked perfectly for Microsoft employees used to the gesture, but I wasn't as proficient. You can also issue commands to the HoloLens, which can double as macros.

The best, first: A walk upon Mars
I saw the fruits of Microsoft's partnership with NASA last, but it's worth talking about first.

After the HoloLens was strapped to my head, I took a long look about Mars. Microsoft and NASA took composite images from the Martian landers and created a 3D mesh, so that you can literally walk around the surface of Mars. The idea, Microsoft executives explained, was that NASA scientists could use the map to plot out the next path for the rover, and "mark" objects that merited further exploration. Clicking a waypoint marked it with a little virtual flag. And you could even kneel and peer "under" rocks

Microsoft introduced another colleague into the simulation via a golden avatar that, in the demonstration, you could work with collaboratively, speaking to him via the HoloLens itself.

Sure, cynics may pooh-pooh it as just another version of Google Maps on Mars, with a little VR worked in. Nonsense. Any kid at heart--4 or 40--would love this.

You want me to rewire a light switch? With Skype?
Yes, you can collaborate with Skype, but the extent of it is usually to share a screen, chat, or talk in real time. Microsoft asked me to rewire an actual light switch.

After the HoloLens was attached, I dialed "Alice" using an (unfortunately) 2D version of Skype that floated in my vision. Alice appeared, and explained my mission: Using some physical tools and her instructions, I would install a new light switch. Her version of Skype allowed her to see what I saw, and draw arrows and diagrams to help me. And to make it easier, I could "pin" her Skype window out of my field of vision. I did as I was told, an engineer turned on the power, and voila! I was a handyman.

About the only real disappointment I felt was that Alice was just a 2D video window. I was hoping she might be a 3D avatar that would hover at my elbow.

Holo Builder: So you want to play VR Minecraft?
For all the awe I felt at the Mars simulation, the Holo Builder virtual-world demo was undoubtedly the most fun. Because the HoloLens can scan the objects around you, Microsoft could turn a small room into a three-dimensional Minecraft level, complete with lava, caves, and zombies. In one task, I was asked to light a few barrels of TNT, blowing a virtual hole into a bench and plunging the zombies into a lava-filled pit as I peered down from above. A castle perched on a coffee table. And then yes, I blew a virtual hole through a physical hole with more dynamite and exposed another cave. I only wish I could have flicked a sheep off the side of the table and sent it bleating to its doom.


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