Thursday, January 22, 2015

Microsoft's HoloLens is no joke: My reality augmented with Skype, Minecraft

With the HoloLens, Microsoft promises it can deliver a true next-gen computing experience while other tech giants struggle to do the same.Microsoft

REDMOND, Wash. -- In the bowels of Building 92, hidden underneath the company's public visitor center in a secret series of labs, Microsoft let a few people try out what may be the most ambitious Windows device ever made: a holographic headset that aims to rival the most advanced virtual reality devices out there.

Microsoft's HoloLens is expected to run Windows 10 and apps -- holographic ones that will float in front of your line of vision and apps that can be run on phones, tablets, PCs and the Xbox One game console. With the holographic programs, Microsoft is trying to transform how we think about computing, productivity and communication. Just as VR rivals Oculus (owned by Facebook) and Google are trying to reimagine virtual experiences with their head-worn devices, Microsoft wants us to imagine a world without screens, where information merely floats in front of you.

"We're not talking about putting you into virtual worlds," HoloLens leader Alex Kipman said Wednesday during an event at Microsoft's headquarters here. "We're dreaming beyond virtual worlds, beyond screens, beyond pixels."

Kipman started working at Microsoft seven years ago, when he pitched the idea for the Kinect motion camera, a video game device that tracked a player's body movements. The Kinect went on to become one of the fastest-selling devices in history.

For the last five years, Kipman has been focused on taking the innovations inside the Kinect -- cheap and powerful motion-sensing cameras, voice control -- and packing them into a pair of transparent goggles.

Microsoft appears far along in realizing this augmented reality vision. With HoloLens today, the company has designed a convincing prototype that floats 3D images in front of you and that can change the look of real-world objects all around. But it's unclear how Microsoft expects to deliver on CEO Satya Nadella's commitment that such a device will be for both consumers and businesses.

Also unsaid: How much it will cost. Microsoft said it expects to release a finished HoloLens within the same time frame as Windows 10, which should arrive sometime this year. The Oculus Rift's various developer kits, on the other hand, have cost upward of $300 in the past, with its consumer model expected to come in between $200 and $400. Samsung's Gear VR headset runs around $350.

Microsoft's glasses are different from Oculus Rift goggles, which promise to transport you to a different world and open up numerous possibilities for film, TV, sports and other entertainment. HoloLens uses a technology called augmented reality, which overlays images onto real life and lets you interact with them. In theory, this is easy, but the biggest struggles competitors have had so far have been to design a headset that can stand alone, untethered from a computer or power source, and travel into various environments. Overcoming those challenges is necessary before mainstream consumers will buy into such a bold vision for next-generation computing.

From Mars to Minecraft

As we're led down the stairs into the basement, we're told that we can't try the more polished, all-in-one prototype Microsoft just showed onstage. Instead, we'll be using an earlier, uglier prototype. The company doesn't allow smartphones or cameras into the room.

The device's holographic processing unit, the special processor Microsoft designed to basically help the HoloLens interpret movement and sound, is cased in a separate, chunky box intended to be worn around your neck. The glasses aren't the sleek, space gray model Microsoft unveiled this morning, but a mass of metal. A long chord tethers me to a pair of PCs that are helping feed the goggles their images.

The demo was unique in that it showcased a feasible and realistic use of augmented reality that wasn't bombastic or meant to marvel. I was able to do something I can say I haven't done in quite a long time with help from a total stranger who was seeing through my eyes and drawing on my reality to direct me through a task.

After checking the voltage on the wires, wrapping coils around the respective screws and capping the loose wires, I picked up a remote control and tapped a button. The light came to life. I had only to look up so the person on the other end of my eyes could see the end result of our successful collaboration.

About the Author

Prejeesh Sreedharan

Author & Editor

I am a Biotechnologist very much interested in #SciTech (Science And Technology). I closely follow the developments in medical science and life science. I am also very enthusiast in the world of electronics, information technology and robotics. I always looks for ways to make complicated things simpler. And I always believes simplest thing is the most complicated ones.

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