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Hands On With Microsoft’s HoloLens: Windows In Its Most Daring And Unexpected Form

It feels like a science experiment, and many questions remain. But this augmented reality gizmo is bold–and nothing like Google Glass.

Hands On With Microsoft’s HoloLens: Windows In Its Most Daring And Unexpected Form
Microsoft’s Minecraft-based HoloLens demo [Photos courtesy of Microsoft]

Wrapping up a tech-product keynote by casually announcing “one more thing” is, of course, a move synonymous with the Apple events presided over by Steve Jobs. But I can’t remember many One More Things more potent than the one which Microsoft unveiled at the end of the Windows 10 keynote it held on its corporate campus on Wednesday.

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After 90 minutes or so of mostly straightforward demos of mostly straightforward Windows 10 features, the company introduced what may be the most daring version of Windows ever: Windows Holographic, which is designed to augment reality by overlaying 3-D digital imagery on real-world scenes and providing control via gestures and voice. And it showed off HoloLens, a sleek set of goggles created by Alex Kipman, whose previous efforts include the Xbox’s Kinect sensor. Unlike Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, HoloLens is a full-blown computing device, running Windows Holographic and requiring no tethering to a PC or smartphone.

Not a hint of any of this leaked out in the weeks leading up to Microsoft’s event. Seldom has any big tech company done such a good job of keeping something so unexpected so…unexpected.

Microsoft HoloLens

Windows Holographic and HoloLens feel like they could be what Microsoft pitched them as: The start of a new era of computing. But it also needs to be said that the picture we got of these products was far from complete. Everything from the price to details about how the technology works went unmentioned. As for the ship date, all Microsoft is saying is that HoloLens will be available in “the Windows 10 timeframe,” which presumably means sometime in 2015.

Asking questions about HoloLens didn’t bring it into sharper focus. After the keynote, I got eyes-and-hands-on demos of the gizmo as part of a small group of journalists. We buttonholed Microsoft staffers for more details, but hardly got any. Instead, a PR rep furiously jotted notes about our queries on a Surface tablet for future reference.

The demos we got didn’t use the slick, untethered visor-like device which Microsoft showed off on stage. Instead, we tried Windows Holographic on prototype hardware which involved a harness for your head and electronics in a bulky box you wore on a neck strap. We got only a few glimpses at what the technology is capable of, in tightly controlled environments; it all felt like a science experiment, not something which consumers would be able to buy within months.

Glasses On Top of Glasses

Before we go any further, a disclaimer. I’m a worst-case scenario for goggle-based technology, be it something as mundane as 3-D movies or as potentially game-changing as HoloLens. It’s not just that I wear eyeglasses; I also have a bizarrely wide head. The HoloLens dev kit hardware pinched my noggin and jammed my glasses up against my eyes in an unnatural position.

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But the big issue wasn’t comfort: It was that the virtual imagery which Windows Holographic creates looked blurry to me, leaving the whole effect feeling less magical than it might have. Some other journalists who did the demos alongside me–ones who don’t wear glasses–told me that that the graphics looked pleasingly crisp to them. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried the experiences without glasses on, and I hope that the final hardware is a better fit for near-sighted, big-headed oddballs such as myself.

Even in fuzzy form, HoloLens can be spectacular. The most impressive demo we got was probably one based on Minecraft, which is now part of Microsoft. It melded the coffee table and other objects in a real-world conference room with tiny blocky buildings rendered by HoloLens. I was able to use an “air tap”–a wave of my index finger–to smack a virtual hammer on the real table, knocking a virtual hole in it and “revealing” more Minecraft structures below.

Another demo provided a sneak peek at Microsoft’s collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to recreate the martian landscape being explored by the Curiosity rover here on earth. And a third one leveraged a Skype video call to let a remote Microsoft employee step me through installing a light switch: He floated above the switch in mug-shot form, drawing a diagram right on top of the switch.

The least compelling demo was of HoloStudio, a program which lets you sculpt 3-D objects by grabbing parts from a toolbox and assembling them right before you. HoloStudio itself looked pretty nifty; the issue was that we didn’t get to try it for ourselves. Instead, we observed as a Microsoft employee had fun creating a “space Koala.” It felt a little like watching some other kid ride a roller coaster.

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A Do-It-All Device

The diversity of Microsoft’s demos–and other scenarios which it brought up on stage and in a video it showed, such as using HoloLens in industrial-design applications–point to a technology with boundless potential. But in a funny way, they also make crafting a marketing message for it that much tougher. HoloLens isn’t like an iPod, with one easy-to-understand killer app. Instead, it’s a new sort of device designed to do almost anything, right from the get go.

What it is–literally–is a personal computer. A PC which runs Windows and which just happens to reside on your head and employ a radically new user interface. Which means that for all its in-your-face newness, HoloLens is also a perfectly logical product for a PC kingpin like Microsoft to build.

It also has little in common with Google Glass, despite both gadgets falling into the very big technological bucket known as augmented reality. (I didn’t hear Microsoft use that phrase on Wednesday, though: It referred to HoloLens’s 3-D imagery as “holograms,” though they don’t meet Merriam-Webster’s definition.) Unlike Glass, HoloLens is meant to be employed while you’re performing specific computing tasks, not as a wear-it-all-the-time complement to everyday life. That means that it should sidestep most or all debate about whether using it is rude or a way to engage in questionable activities.

Among the many things we don’t know about HoloLens is its battery life. But even if it’s only a few hours on a charge, that might be okay. You’re probably not going to use this thing for hours on end. (By contrast, Glass’s three-hour lifespan–for a device you’re supposed to wear all day long–does not compute.)

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In the end, even the most impressive possible demo of HoloLens doesn’t tell you enough to form a rational opinion of how it might do once it reaches consumers. Back in 2007, I got excited over the first product which Microsoft called Surface–the wildly innovative computing table with a multi-touch interface. Though that system (now known as PixelSense) has never gone away entirely, it also didn’t go much of anywhere. More recently, as Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has pointed out, Kinect has failed to have the sort of profound impact on gaming and entertainment that it looked like it might when the original version was released in 2010.

Microsoft’s challenges with HoloLens, in other words, are only partly about technology: They’re also about making the case to consumers that the technology enables useful experiences, and having the patience to keep slogging away if consumers are not immediately convinced.

Still, for all that remains unknown about this device, the fact that Microsoft says that it will ship at around the same time as Windows 10 means we won’t be left dangling for long. Real people are going to get the chance to buy HoloLens soon–and their response to this utterly new form of Windows is going to be more fascinating than any of the demos I tried in Redmond.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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