Microsoft’s recently unveiled Hololens is a “holographic computer” that a user operates through a visor/pair of glasses. The Hololens introduces augmented reality computing by mapping a user’s environment and overlaying that environment with three-dimensional images that can be seen only by the viewer. Microsoft intends for the Hololens to transform how the user interfaces with their data, turning two-dimensional representations of data into a three-dimensional world to be accessed by voice, hand, or eye motions. It lays holograms over the real world via the Hololens.
As described by Wired magazine, the holographic effect is produced by the generation of photons in the Hololens’ “light engine,” which then sends the photons into the two lenses, where layers of red, blue, and green glass alter the particles before they reach the user’s eye. The holograms then appear as a part of the real world of the user. The images are not confined to small additions to present environments, however. One of the more popular demos Microsoft has offered testers is exploration of a section of the Mars landscape, which requires a full 3D rendering and cannot be merged with the “real world.” The Hololens does not produce a full VR experience, but neither is it tethered to small object or text overlays.
Because augmented reality requires that the device understand the environment, the Hololens has a camera that maps the room in front of you. It also has an environmental reading depth of field of 120 by 120 degrees—wide enough to pick up big hand motions. Images created by the Hololens can be manipulated three ways: by voice, hand gesture, and eye movement. The Hololens also includes spatial sound, which allows the user to hear holograms located at the sides and behind the body. The Hololens is also quite independent; it needs no wires to connect to any other device and does not require connect on or syncing to any PC or phone.
There is some debate about whether the images created by the Hololens can technically be called holograms. To the viewer, these images certainly seem like three-dimensional holograms, but they are not projected externally and can only be seen by the wearer of the glasses. Many industry writers argue that they are not true holograms, though most publications use the term (including Microsoft, thus the name “Hololens”).
The Hololens is still in development, but has a planned release to the public in timing with Windows 10 (it was announced in conjunction with Windows 10).
Note: The terms Hololens and Windows Holographic are often used in conjunction which each other, but they are not quite the same. The Hololens is the physical device itself, and Windows Holographic is the tech created for app development for the device.
The Hololens will operate with the Windows 10 operating system, but requires no connection to a PC or other device. It is a self-contained computer in itself, and aside from needing a wi-fi connection, it essentially operates as its own platform.
Microsoft has not yet announced any specific new game development for the Hololens, but if the device works as advertised, the gaming possibilities are impressive. Microsoft developers have provided a Hololens Minecraft (recently acquired by Microsoft) demo that has drawn praise from testers.
Full-immersion VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, should they continue to improve, will likely hold the edge over the Hololens (for now) when it comes to complete-world game scenarios (as the most popular video-games typically are). Augmented reality gaming has yet to be fully explored, and it is unclear to what degree the Hololens will be able to project a fully-realized world without allowing edge-of-vision real-world distractions (outside the 120 degree projection display) to interrupt play.
At least a few sources have suggested that the Hololens could make televisions obsolete, projecting films and shows as large or as small as you want them right in front of you. The degree to which users are willing to wear the device for long periods will play a big factor in deciding how much the Hololens cuts into traditional-screen viewing patterns.
The following Microsoft promotional video shows a 2-dimensional video projection following a Hololens viewer as she travels through her office, as well as a man watching Netflix from his couch with the device: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aThCr0PsyuA
One particularly impressive Hololens demo that has been offered to testers is remote instruction of complex physical tasks. Testers are given a malfunctioning light switch and are guided by a linked electrician into completing the necessary repair steps. Testers have been impressed by the success of the process, though it should be noted that the repair scenario is designed and implemented by Microsoft, inside Microsoft offices.
So how does the new Hololens differ from Magic Leap and the Oculus Rift, arguably the other two most anticipated enhanced-vision/3D properties under development right now? The Oculus Rift provides virtual reality, meaning that 100% of a user’s field of vision is fabricated—unlike the Hololens, which creates augmented reality. The Hololens’ only true competitor is the Magic Leap, as both purport to do essentially the same thing—lay three-dimensional virtual objects over the real world (as seen by the user’s eyes).
The Hololens has jumped ahead of Magic Leap in market access, if not in technical wizardry. Although the Hololens is still in development, it is already in the hands of software developers, including at least one game developer. Magic Leap has yet to be released to developers or to industry eyes, making it difficult to judge the degree of progress it has made.
Comparisons to Google Glass are also inevitable, and one particularly interesting result is just how antiquated the Hololens makes Google Glass seem. This is surprising, given the “next big thing” status that Google Glass held for so long. The limitations of Google Glass, which was designed as a casual, everyday-wear device, are well known; indeed, Google recently pulled Google Glass from the market to rethink its strategy for the product. The Hololens largely avoids a similar backlash because it is designed for business, gaming, and some in-home personal computing applications, not for public use.
The Hololens has not been tested publicly by consumers or third parties, so it is difficult to determine what problems might arise from prolonged use. Early industry testers—representatives of trade publications and the like—have almost universally reported positive experiences. But few of them have worn the device for more than a few minutes. Longer-term use is required to ferret out any design flaws or physical discomfort, as the developers at Microsoft well understand. Microsoft does claim that side venting will prevent the device from becoming hot on the user’s head.
Another concern is the quality of the voice command activation. The Hololens will have no keyboard, so if sufficiently complex commands can’t be handled by voice (as anyone who has used Siri might expect), then it will be difficult to accomplish with the Hololens what a user can with traditional computing.
There are also personal human-to-human contact issues to be considered. Computing, film-and-TV watching, or gaming with the Hololens will hide a person’s eyes (and about half their face) from others in the room. For a family to switch to the Hololens as their primary entertainment-viewing device would presumably require a new level of isolation from each other. This will be an interesting interpersonal communication vs. technology issue to keep an eye on.
Official Microsoft Hololens Site: http://www.microsoft.com/microsoft-hololens/en-us
Wired’s Hands-on Testing Article: http://www.wired.com/2015/01/microsoft-hands-on/
CNET on Hololens Tech: http://www.cnet.com/news/microsoft-hololens-explained-how-it-works-and-why-its-different/
Hololens vs. Google Glass: http://www.informationweek.com/mobile/microsoft-hololens-vs-google-glass-no-comparison/d/d-id/1318851