At this week’s Microsoft Build conference, reporters like myself were invited to take part in the Microsoft Holographic Academy, a hands-on learning sessions with the company’s futuristic HoloLens headset.
I jumped at the chance — it meant more or less a solid hour of fiddling around with the most recent version of Microsoft’s HoloLens, the $3,000 head-mounted computer that started shipping to developers this week.
It was a lot of fun, and a fantastic look at how far HoloLens has come since my last, extremely short, demo a year ago. And I had even more fun when I went rogue and strayed from the demo path that Microsoft laid out for me.
Bizarrely, Microsoft prohibited photos at the Holographic Academy despite the current availability of HoloLens, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
So just trust me when I say that this thing has the potential to be capital-H Huge for Microsoft and the world at large.
The biggest change, obviously, is in the hardware: In 2015, the HoloLens needed to be hooked up to a tethered PC to function, and a stagehand had to follow me around to keep cables out of my way while I got the walkthrough.
Now, the HoloLens is a full-self-contained, surprisingly lightweight headset. It fits onto your head with a wheel to tighten it, and it’s surprisingly comfortable despite weighing just over a pound. To charge, it just takes a standard micro-USB cable like the kind that come with most Android phones.
The HoloLens has gotten a lot of flak, including from yours truly, for its limited viewing window, where holograms are only viewable in a comparatively small area of your vision.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that after maybe fifteen minutes of fiddling around with HoloLens, my eyes adjusted and I barely noticed the limitation. For my fellow four-eyes, it’s kind of like how you stop noticing the frame of a new pair of glasses after a few minutes of wearing them.
The interface is simple and straightforward. After you complete a simple calibration process, a basic menu lets you access the Cortana digital assistant and any apps on the device.
You get around by pointing and “air-tapping,” which is best described as clicking an imaginary mouse. To exit from an app, you make what they call a “blooming” motion, which involves putting all your fingers in your palm and then opening up.
Right out of the gate, the HoloLens has the Microsoft Edge browser (more on that later), and simple photo and video recording options to shoot what you see. Eventually, HoloLens will get a whole slew of Windows 10 apps, too.
Over the course of the Holographic Academy demo, Microsoft walked us through an extremely dumbed-down class on how to build a basic HoloLens app with the popular Unity game engine.
First, we made a hologram of a tiny-floating “energy hub” that spewed shapes everywhere when you air-tap it. Then, we rigged it up so six of us could see and play with the energy hub at a time.
A very neat thing is that all six of us could collaborate on where in the room to place the hologram by moving around — it automatically put the energy hub at the intersection of where all six of us were looking.
If we looked at a table, HoloLens was smart enough to recognise it as a solid surface, and the hologram automatically sat itself on top. Microsoft tells me that it’s constantly scanning the environment to get a better read for where holograms should appear in the real world.
Once air-tapped, the energy hub stays totally still. Look away, and you can still hear it humming, with the audio generated from where you placed it. Look back, and it’s still right there.
Better yet, Microsoft showed us how to pick a floating avatar, a cute cartoon named “Poly” (short for “polygon”). We could see each other’s Polys floating over our heads. And then, best of all, we got the ability to shoot little “bombs” at each other by air-tapping in front of us. If we hit another Poly, it got stunned. If we hit a real-world wall with our holographic bomb, it bounced off.
The applications of all of this for gaming, teaching, and conducting big presentations is crazy exciting. Imagine doing a school project where a fully interactive hologram showing your work appears in front of everyone else in the room.
I’ve never done well in a classroom setting. And so when I got bored of messing around with the energy hub, I used that “blooming” motion to get back to the main menu.
From there, I fiddled around with the camera feature, which is nothing special but lets you email your pictures and videos to yourself.
The best part, for my money, was the built-in Microsoft Edge browser. When you open it, it prompts you to place a window anywhere you want in the world. You can pin it to a wall or have it hover in mid-air. Once placed, it looks like a normal web browser window.
But then you can open another window. And another. And another. And place them wherever you want in the world. By the time I was done, I had surrounded myself entirely with web browser windows hovering in space around me and pinned to the walls. The same principle applies to other apps, too, like Skype.
No, it’s not super practical. But a Microsoft employee shared a great idea: He said that he uses HoloLens to keep a Netflix window open at the bottom of his sink while he does dishes.
And man, it’s cool.
So yeah, $3,000 is pricey. And it’s still a first-generation product. But after an hour of messing around and going rogue, the HoloLens feels very real, and very exciting.