One of the most intriguing and fantastical inventions yet, the Microsoft Hololens looks set to transform our lives and revolutionise the way we work and play. But what exactly is the Hololens, how does it work, and what can it do? Simply put, it allows you to see actual holograms that you can interact with. The best part? It’s coming within the next few years.
For seven years, one of Microsoft’s teams has been working in a secret underground lab to develop a miraculous technological marvel that could have leapt right out of the pages of a science fiction novel. This lab is so secure that journalists invited in to demo the Hololens were not even allowed to bring in their computers to take notes, and were instead given notepads and pens to do so. Perhaps Microsoft’s biggest bet for the future of computing, this invention is the Microsoft Hololens, and it was demoed just a few weeks back. If you haven’t already heard of it, you should catch up by watching the two videos below. Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you.
That should have given you at least an inkling of what the Microsoft Hololens is. For those of you who can’t watch the videos now (and I strongly urge you to do so eventually), the Microsoft Hololens is a sleek headset with transparent lenses.
When you turn it on, the world around you is transformed, with 3D objects, or holograms, appearing all around you.
These holograms which look like solid objects, are visible only to you, the wearer, and interact with your world, conforming to the edges, curves and contours of reality. For example, a video game character could bounce up and down on your couch, then leap to the floor, like as if there really were an actual, physical automaton or alien jumping around your home. And if you want to see the back of a motorcycle in your living room, just walk behind it.
Wait, doesn’t Oculus Rift already do something like that? Or, for that matter, Sony’s Morpheous Project, or Samsung Gear VR or Google Glass? What’s with the hype about this one?
This is a common question, and your confusion is understandable.
Your world is transformed with holograms appearing all around you.
You see, the Oculus Rift, Sony’s Morpheus Project, and Samsung Gear VR, are headsets with a screen in front of your eyes, blocking the periphery of your vision so you only see what is on the screen. This screen is opaque, much like the one on your phone. In fact, DIY Virtual Reality headsets are possible, and cheaply, with a phone through Google Cardboard. “Virtual Reality” is the term for such headsets which simulate the experience of being in another place entirely. This means that you could be playing an immersive first person video game, and feel like you’re really there. That is pretty much the primary purpose of VR headsets right now, but there are potential medical applications too. These are only really used in some specific settings, such as at home, because it means you are cut off from the real world. And you kinda need to be in a safe place, preferably stationary, to be effectively blindfolded from everything that’s around you.
Google Glass is more of a heads up display. If you’ve heard of smartwatches, which give you notifications on your wrist at appropriate times throughout the day, such as weather and news updates, along with notifications like calls, texts and WhatsApp messages from your phone, then you’ll understand that Google Glass is basically that, but on a tiny half-inch display at the top right hand corner of the glasses, which does not obstruct your vision. It also takes images and videos, and was meant for using when out and about, but the project got shut down by Google, presumably because nobody really liked it or thought there was a need for it.
Want to see the back of a motorcycle in your living room? Just walk behind it.
The Microsoft Hololens, on the other hand, is more of an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. It augments or enhances reality by blending your real world with the virtual one, by showing you holograms. To add to the immersion, it features “built-in spatial sound” which lets you hear holograms wherever they are in the room with pinpoint precision. The Hololens also monitors your movements so you can use hand gestures such as raising or lowering your finger to click in midair, to interact with the holograms. Unlike Google Glass, It’s not really meant for when you’re out and about, but instead more for home and work.
Light particles bounce around millions of times in the device, then enter the goggle’s lenses and reach your eye.
In fact, Microsoft’s billing it as such, and it has exceptional potential for careers requiring designing, games, and some other things you can do around the home, like having widgets and notifications floating in your home.
Designers and game developers aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the Hololens though. In fact, scientists from the NASA are actually, right now, working with the Microsoft team to adapt Hololens for exploring a virtual version of Mars that was generated from pictures of Mars taken from their rovers on Mars. They are expected to begin using the Hololens for their work in the later part of this year, which is actually pretty soon.
These holograms which look like solid objects, are visible only to you, the wearer, and interact with your world, conforming to the edges, curves and contours of reality.
Microsoft also showed off a feature that allows people to get help from people on certain things requiring practical knowledge and hands-on help. In the demo for lucky journalists, they were instructed to fix a lightbulb only with the guidance of someone who wasn’t even there. This electrician, actually a Microsoft engineer, saw everything the journalists saw through the Hololens, and could draw arrows pointing to things in the real world, helping to get his instructions across more clearly than just verbally.
What’s more, it runs on Microsoft’s Windows 10, which features universal apps — apps that run across all Windows 10 devices, such as phones, computers, tablets, televisions, and yes, the Hololens. This means that Windows 10 universal apps, such as Outlook, and the veritable suite of Office apps, will be able to work with the HoloLens. Also, Windows 10 will include APIs necessary for developers to create holographic experiences. This basically means that when someone develops a universal app for Windows 10, it will work on Hololens too, making it easier to develop for the platform.
What makes this especially impressive is that it does all this just on a headset, with no external computer or offloaded processing by a server somewhere in America. It’s an incredible, astonishing feat, one that was only made possible because Microsoft invented a Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) which runs alongside a CPU and GPU to transfer terabytes of data per second to overlay your world with holograms. Yes, terabytes per second. If that isn’t a technical accomplishment, I don’t know what is. What’s more, early accounts by journalists who’ve tested it out show that there is no discernible lag when you move about, and the holograms stay in place, so for the skeptical among us, no, it is not vapourware.
I’m sure you’re wondering how it is even possible for it to display the holograms. Basically, you see things because that photons — particles of light — bounce off objects and hit your eyes. So, as Wired puts it in their hands-on preview, to create the 3D images, “light particles bounce around millions of times in the so-called light engine of the device. Then the photons enter the goggles’ two lenses, where they ricochet between layers of blue, green and red glass before they reach the back of your eye.”
Holy crap, this sounds amazing, where can I get it and for how much?
I totally get your excitement, but unfortunately, the Hololens is still in development. Microsoft says it will be “available in the Windows 10 timeframe” so I’m estimating it could be released within 2 years.
Developer sets will be sold in hopefully a few months’ time, by “this Spring”, according to Microsoft. As for the price, your guess is as good as mine. VR headsets cost several hundred dollars, and the Google Glass cost 1500 bucks, but this is pretty different from either, so not much can be said about the price of the first sets.
That said, Microsoft says it’s meant to be both an enterprise and consumer device, so here’s to hoping it’s something consumers can actually afford.
The Microsoft Hololens is pretty damn amazing, and I’m honestly more excited for it than I have been with any other piece of technology in recent years. It’s a technology that opens up a universe of possibilities, and could fundamentally change the way we work.
That said, Microsoft’s got a lot on its plate trying to get its debut of this tech to roll out flawlessly, and we’ll all be watching when it does release the first developer units. But regardless of whether Microsoft becomes the first to fully execute this vision well enough for consumers to buy into (and buy) it, this dream has fascinated me and many others. Microsoft’s shown us a whole new world of computing; the era of holographic computing is nigh, and I cannot wait for it.