I just had a 40-minute in-person demonstration of HoloLens, Microsoft’s new computer headset, and I’m convinced that personal computing is on the verge of a major change.
In 10 years or so, people will be using head-mounted displays that project 3D images that you can interact with in actual space.
It’s going to be a huge leap over the flat-screen computing that we’ve all become used to over the last 30 years. It’s so much obviously better, once people try it, there will be no going back.
Augmented versus virtual
This was the second time in two months that I felt like I was glancing into the future. The first was when I tried on the latest version of the Oculus Rift, Facebook’s virtual reality headset. It reminded me of that “wow” feeling I had the first time I tried an iPhone back in 2007.
HoloLens and Oculus are similar but distinct. Oculus Rift is virtual reality, which means the image seems to surround you entirely, and you don’t see any part of the real world.
HoloLens is augmented reality, which means it projects images on top of the real world. (It doesn’t really project holograms, which everybody can see — you need to be wearing the headset, or looking at a computer display of what the viewer is seeing, in order to see the images.) The goggles, or glasses, are translucent. It’s a little like Google Glass, but with actual glass, and much more immersive.
HoloLens is less jarring than Oculus, and a lot more flexible. With HoloLens, the programmer can control transparency of real-world objects. For instance, in one demo, the program superimposed the Martian landscape all around me, and I could barely see through it — except when I was looking at one particular PC monitor, which appeared front and center.
It’s closest to Google Glass, but I never saw a very good immersive application in Glass — it was always just a little tiny bit of information superimposed on the real world. Glass seemed more geared toward taking in information, like recording video. HoloLens was more interactive and two way. (Apparently Magic Leap, which in October got a $US542 million investment from Google, is working on something similar, but we haven’t seen it yet.)
This combination of reality and unreality is amazing, and potentially incredibly useful, as the demos showed.
Here’s what I saw.
Microsoft has been working on HoloLens in secret for five years, one rep told me, and security was incredibly tight. I was with a group of about 30 other reporters. Microsoft confiscated our bags and phones, and we were not allowed to take pictures or video.
Then, they escorted us downstairs into the super-secret labs in the basement of the Microsoft Visitor Center, right in the most-trafficked part of Microsoft’s headquarters. As one executive quipped earlier today, this five-year development project was hidden in plain sight.
We were trying on early demo versions of the glasses, and they were a lot clunkier than the prototype version shown on stage and in the picture at the top of this article. They were basically two pieces of glass and a series of head straps, with some odd metal cylinders here and there. There was also what looked like the main CPU unit, a several-pound black box that we draped around our neck, and we had to use a power cord during the demos. The whole setup was very steampunk, or like something from the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil.”
But Microsoft assured us that the much slicker prototype versions would in fact be out soon — “in the Windows 10 time frame” is the official statement. Think 2016. They also promised that HoloLens would be self-contained — it requires no phone, no PC, and is battery-powered.
Microsoft showed us a couple key things, like how to move the cursor around the virtual world (that’s easy, you just move your head), and how to select using a particular finger gesture — you basically stick your finger straight up in the air like one of those foam hands fans show at football games, then move the finger down and back up again.
Then we were ready to go. I tried three applications, and got a demo of another person using a fourth one.
This was the most obviously useful and the easiest to understand, as it was an extension of an familiar application, Skype video calling.
For the demo, I was told that I would be installing a light switch. (I’ve never done this.) I would use the Skype app on HoloLens to call our handy friend, Lloyd, who would walk me through how to do it.
Lloyd appeared in a little window. He could see everything I was looking at. (My field of vision would appear on the Surface app he was using back at his house.) He told me to look at the set of tools, then told me to pick up the voltage meter, the screwdriver, and so on. When he needed to, he could “draw” on the world in front of me — so, for instance, he drew a little diagram to show me which way to hold the light switch when I was attaching it to a couple wires. If I wanted to have a clear field of vision, I could “pin” the little window with him in it, so it would stop following my field of vision around.
This photo from Microsoft’s press kit shows how it works: “Dad” is drawing on the screen while his daughter sees the instructions superimposed on the real world in front of her:
In this way, he walked me through the installation in about five minutes. I succeeded! I wish I’d had this product last weekend, when I struggled to install some curtain rods into plaster in my house. (It took a couple tries.)
This will apparently be a real app, and will be available when HoloLens ships.
For this one, I was escorted into what looked like a small living room. When the game started, I was able to see Minecraft blocks and scenes superimposed on the real surroundings around me. They even extended below the coffee table in the middle of the room.
At one point, I was pointed to some zombies on another table. I said “shovel” and a shovel appeared on the screen. Then, I used the finger-gesture to dig a trench through the coffee table. Weirdly, the coffee table seemed to disappear, showing me the Minecraft world below it, including a pit of hot lava. (Obviously, what was really happening is that as I dug, the Minecraft world was superimposed on the coffee table in just that spot. But it really seemed like I was digging through it.)
Then I lit some TNT and blew the zombies into the lava.
By the way, Microsoft did not officially call this demo Minecraft, and they’re not committing to bringing Minecraft to this platform. But it looked just like Minecraft, and let’s be serious — if they did this, my kids would become even more addicted to Minecraft than they already are.
Here’s kind of what it looked like:
Microsoft developed this app in conjunction with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a branch of NASA that tests all kinds of futuristic applications from companies and government agencies before the general public. (I’m jealous, I want to work there.)
The surface of Mars unfolded before me. I moved my head to move the cursor around, then moved my finger to select specific spots. Then we could apply scientific analyses to these spots. We could also walk right up to them, crouch down for a closer look, and so on.
At one point, there was a PC monitor right in the middle of our field of vision — this was to show how scientists do this today, and it’s rudimentary compared with being able to move through the space in 3D. But it was also another example of how the real world and the virtual world commingled.
Finally, one of our colleagues appeared as a shimmering gold avatar, and we worked with him to discuss parts of the scene that we wanted to photograph.
It sounds complicated, but it was actually quite intuitive and easy to use.
As with Skype, this is a real application, and NASA JPL plans to start using it with real Mars Rover data this summer.
For the fourth demo, we watched rather than participated. The demonstrator dragged various blocks and on-screen commands around to build a 3D model. (We were able to see what the demonstrator saw on a couple of big screens at the side of the room.)
At the end, this demonstrator sent his model to a virtual cloud-based 3D printing service, which would send him a finished plastic version in the mail.
This demo was the least impressive of the four, but showed how building a 3D model is much easier in a virtual 3D space than on a flat screen. You can actually rotate the thing, walk around it, and see what you’re doing on all sides.
What does it all mean for Microsoft?
Again, what Microsoft showed today was just a prototype. We don’t know when it’s coming out, exactly how the final version will differ from the prototype, how much it will cost, or what applications will be available for it. It may crash. The resolution may not be particularly high. It may give some people headaches, or nausea, or who knows what.
But it felt a lot more finished than Oculus, which today shows nothing more than a few short (if really impressive) video loops. It will have APIs that will ship with Windows 10. It has at least a couple of finished applications. It has at least a vague time-frame for shipping. And most important, it felt a lot more like a general-purpose computing tool, with a ton of potential applications for consumers and businesses.
HoloLens won’t be material to Microsoft’s business any time soon. But it shows that Microsoft is still thinking way into the future.
Microsoft may have missed the smartphone revolution, but there’s no reason to think that computing stopped evolving when the smartphone became common. Microsoft is certainly taking steps to make sure it has a part in whatever comes next.