Microsoft HoloLens: Everything you need to know about the $3,000 AR headset

Updated: We dig a little deeper into Microsoft's vision for augmented reality
Microsoft HoloLens: Your full guide

Microsoft HoloLens, the company's holographic, augmented reality headset (or mixed reality if you're being picky), took us all by surprise when it was unveiled at a Windows 10 event at the beginning of 2015.

The HoloLens headset is a bold piece of hardware and the most exciting evidence yet that Microsoft is taking wearable tech seriously. It also comes with a bold price – the Development Edition launched on 30 March with another round of orders opened to anyone with a Microsoft account and US/Canada address on 2 August. Whether you ordered one in the spring or summer, both come with a price tag of $3,000. Ouch.

Hands-on: Microsoft HoloLens review

Microsoft is promising a future filled with holograms, but not as we'd imagine them – you'll only be able to see them with the HoloLens strapped on.

Read on for details, specs, explanations and analysis of every last inch of Microsoft's HoloLens headset and its Holographic platform.

The headset

When we first saw images of the HoloLens, we described it as "part Google Glass, part Oculus Rift, part helmet from RoboCop". So it's safe to say, it's not an example of the inconspicuous wearables we'll see (or not) in the next five years. But don't let that put you off – what's important here is the tech and what this headset can do.

The headset itself wraps around your head with quite a thick visor-like band. It weighs in at 579g, which means it's heavier than had been previously rumoured. Word out of Redmond is that it will be both lightweight and adjustable to fit different adult head sizes – suggesting it's not for children. There are also no wires and no phones involved, so this is a standalone device.

Read next: Everything you need to know about AR

The set-up consists of holographic lenses and a depth camera as well as speakers above the ears and on-board processing via an Intel 32-bit architecture, an unspecified GPU and HPU (holographic processing unit). That's backed up by 2GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. There's also a vent to keep the headset from overheating. On the connectivity front, it'll support both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, as had been expected.

There's a host of sensors built into the headset as well, which include an ambient light sensor and four environment sensing cameras that work in combination with a depth sensing camera to create the spaces that you'll be able to work within.

That's also accompanied by a 2-megapixel HD camera to take photos and record mixed reality video, with audio capture covered by an array of four microphones.

We now also know that it'll come boxed with a carry case, an AC adapter to power it up and a spare nose-arch. There's also a new Bluetooth Clicker accessory to use as an alternative means to navigate if you don't want to constantly use air tap gestures.

On the subject of battery life, we now know that it'll be 2-3 hours for active use. It might be disappointing news for some that it won't last an entire day, but let's be honest here – who's going to use it for 24 hours? You can use it when it's being charged via Micro USB though and it has an impressive standby time of two weeks.

The depth camera

It all starts with the depth camera. It sounds a bit like the Kinect camera used on the Xbox, but it's low power and it will have have a field of view equivalent to a a 15-inch screen from two feet away. There are multiple cameras around the headset, on the front and sides. They can capture video of your 'real' surroundings, track your hands (see gestures) and help to track your head movements with the help of sensors dotted around the device.

The lenses

Blending virtual models, environments and 'holograms' with, well, reality, means that the lenses are transparent, similar to those found in Google Glass as well as rival smart glasses and goggles from Sony and others. There are two – one for each eye – and they are made up of three layers of glass (blue, green and red).

A 'light engine' above the lenses projects light into the headset and tiny corrugated grooves in each layer of glass diffract these light particles, making them bounce around and helping to trick your eyes into perceiving virtual objects at virtual distances.

The technology is based on Windows 10 and once the HoloLens has mapped the room it blends what Microsoft is calling holograms into the real environment.

The holograms

This is where the HoloLens gets really exciting, because what you see through the lenses isn't simply a hovering, transparent version of your smartphone screen as with Google Glass or similar. Microsoft is taking AR to the next level with virtual 3D models of objects that appear either as part of your real surroundings, or combine to make up entirely new ones. We're told they will be 'high definition' but without specifics for the time being.

These aren't holograms in the traditional sci-fi sense of projected, glowing 3D avatars, but there are a number of similarities. For starters, Microsoft is working on a feature it calls 'pinning' which allows the HoloLens wearer to lock a hologram in place and then move around it to view it from different angles. A big advantage over, say, an Oculus Rift, is that the HoloLens looks like it will be truly portable – so being able to walk around a virtual object becomes possible.

Wareable verdict: Oculus Rift vs HTC Vive

Microsoft wants developers to create new apps, games and experiences for the HoloLens using its Holographic platform. We imagine the Windows 10 tie-in isn't just to get Windows back in front of our faces (literally) but also to make it easier for developers to get on board.

The gestures

The HoloLens is controlled by gestures and voice, along with the new Clicker controller to break things up. The only physical controls on the device are the power switch, a volume button and contrast controls for the holographic lenses.

Related reading: Sony PlayStation VR essential guide

Still, from early hands-ons Microsoft seems to have got to an acceptable level of reliability. And it's going further. Another futuristic feature that Microsoft's engineers are working on is 'holding' – this would allow anyone wearing the HoloLens to be able to grasp and manipulate objects in a virtual 3D space. Think of the Leap Motion modelling and sculpting apps for an idea of the potential here, coupled with the ability to move around objects.

The company demoed this 'holding' at its Windows 10 Devices event in October; showing off a game called Project XRay, in which the user picked up a virtual glove-gun.

The voice controls

Gestures don't always make sense when navigating menus or opening apps so microphones on the headset will capture voice commands.

It's not clear yet whether it will be Microsoft's steadily improving voice assistant, Cortana, who will be guiding us through what the HoloLens can do but we'd be surprised if not. Especially as an upgraded version of the personal assistant was announced at the Windows 10 event – Cortana now runs on desktop, understands seven languages and is better at natural language.

The audio

A big focus of VR companies such as Oculus VR has been on the audio as this can make the difference between creating a truly immersive environment and leaving wearers cold. Since the HoloLens is AR not VR, there's less of an obsession with tricking your mind into believing it's somewhere it's not, but sound is still part of the package.

As we said, the speakers sit above your ears and in-app or in-game audio will come from different directions which depend on where you are in relation to the virtual object making the sound. Just like real life.

The apps and games

So the tech is here and it feels like the future. But what can you actually do with a HoloLens headset? There's a small selection of HoloLens apps mentioned over on the Microsoft website, which includes the likes of Skype plus a mix of more interesting HoloLens games and experiences.

There's HoloStudio where you can create holograms and turn them into 3D objects using a 3D printer. Actiongram beta uses holograms to tell stories, while Roboraid is a mixed reality first person shooter that uses gestures and gaze to fire at the enemy.

Microsoft has also announced that HoloLens will be compatible with all universal Windows 10 apps including OneDrive, Maps, Remote Desktop, Groove Music and Microsoft Office apps.

But it's here where things get really interesting. It doesn't get more legit than NASA wanting to play – and one of the first demos Microsoft is pushing no less – or walking about on the surface of Mars. Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will view images captured by the Curiosity rover through HoloLens headsets in order to work as if they're really there on the red planet.

Essential reading: Best AR and VR headsets

In the simulation they will be able to move around pinning virtual flags in the terrain while working on a real computer in front of them – neither of which would be possible with an Oculus Rift.

The two companies are already working on something called Project Sidekick (image below) using HoloLens as a virtual aid when astronauts are up in space. It's all very exciting stuff.

The automotive industry feels like a good fit for HoloLens and, working with Volvo Cars, the headset could even change the way you pick out your next car. The major car manufacturer believes HoloLens could allow customers to see a car with different paint jobs and pick out some of the more unusual features to explore which might sway your decision to spend.

What about the rest of us? Like other high precision depth cameras, there are some useful applications for anyone working in industries that revolve around objects. One demo involves painting a virtual fender on a physical motorcycle prototype with Skype collaboration via video, something that could save product designers, architects and set designers lots of time. You will even be able to create 3D toys and figures in thin air then get them 3D printed – this is likely to be particularly useful to designers who can be as precise as the cameras and software are.

Microsoft also has an early app that lets an engineer give you instructions over Skype showing you how to fix a light switch safely, sketching circles and arrows as holograms onto what's in front of you. In other words, your friends and colleagues can see what you're seeing and interact with it.

But let's face it, get the right game and the HoloLens could blow up. Microsoft thinks that game is Minecraft, which it now owns, and we're inclined to agree.

AR games on mobiles never really took off – holding our smartphone up and viewing the world through it never felt like much fun. But playing holographic Minecraft in 3D, collaborating in real time with friends in your living room, does sound really tempting.

Related read: Microsoft HoloLens apps and games to look out for

Microsoft recently unveiled a new Share Your Idea platform, which aims to make it easier for developers, coders and the like to pitch ideas for HoloLens apps as well as interesting ways the technology can be used. The Redmond company will pick the three top options from ideas submitted and the winner will be decided by a Twitter vote.

So, there's no cash prize, but you might help shape the future of HoloLens and how it will be used when it lands. You can the browse the latest ideas on the Share Your Idea HoloLens page.

For the gamers, there's also going to be support for Xbox Live, which means that games, online multiplayer and extras like friends lists and achievements are coming to HoloLens as well.

On the less exciting end of things, Microsoft is also looking to tackle the enterprise space. That means lots of work related features, heightened security measures and of course apps geared towards enterprise. Microsoft HoloLens Commercial Suite has been released with the Windows 10 anniversary update and the second round of developer orders for the headset. With it, requested commercial features from early business partners have been added.

The release date and price

The release date for the consumer HoloLens hasn't been announced yet and we'd wager that it will be at least Christmas 2016 before the public get their hands on one.

Before then, the plan is to get HoloLens headsets into the hands of developers as well as influential tech and design people, just like Google did with its initial tech celeb Explorer campaign.

The Developer Edition is available to developers and now to anyone with a Microsoft account and an address in the US or Canada. You can buy up to five headsets per Microsoft account.

9 Comments

  • KaungLay says:

    Does microsoft hololen need a smart glass?

    Unless a smartglass includes,doesn't it work?

  • Elliander says:

    In regards to not having a keyboard and a mouse: Does it have Bluetooth? Could I, for example, call up a window of a desktop environment to float on my desk and use a Keyboard and mouse if I want to, say, write a program on the go? If so I could easily see this device and devices like it completely replace all devices - laptops, desktops, tablets,  and phones. If it's not possible it's a missed opportunity.

    In regards to one operating system for many devices, why stop there? Why not treat each device as having "resources" that all other linked devices can access? Shared storage, shared processing power, etc. If Microsoft implemented such a feature it would likely allow Windows to take the lead in the mobile market because people's phones would essentially power their other devices as well.

    In regards to gaming, I hope the ability to stream to other devices extends to the headset, although I would be more interested in a kind of "cable box" where you can plug all your devices into where it would act as nothing more than a streaming hub so that these devices can play from a projected screen. Doing so would mean allowing non Microsoft devices to be displayed, but it would put Microsoft into a position of central dominance again.

    I hope also there is a feature to share a session with others. The ability to set down with a family, each person wearing augmented reality, and all watching the same thing - a television screen that exists only as an illusion - would effectively make the television obsolete. It would be interesting where two people can watch the same thing or different things looking at the same spot. 

    Now, if I understand this correctly, since the image is displayed in front of the transparent lens, it can appear fully opaque. However, might it be possible to have half transparent objects? Could I, for example, read a book while going for a walk and still be able to see through the book in front of me if I want to, or not see through it if I don't? And if it can adjust like that why can't it be used for full virtual reality as well? It just seems like, in the future, it should be possible to just shift between modes like the difference between first person and third person gaming.

    I also I wonder if it might be possible to install cameras in a home which interact with the augmented reality to determine position and then create a hologram of you in real time that can be projected to others so that instead of a face to face window you would have a face to face holographic conversation.

  • M1911A1ak47 says:

    if they haven't already they should make it so if u and your friends or family members has one to you can connect both together and play games or what ever together :)

  • sugih_tju says:

    if the product thinner and can change the other gadget like phone and also laptop, and also the batteries last longer i think it will replace all the item into this 1 peace of google. Macnificent..

  • UCantTouchThat says:

    My proof-of-concept device from 2004 is in pic at link. It creates a single, simple, intangible control and a composite intangible reality using the multichannel sensor approach I shared with Microsoft (and HP and Apple).

    It can create a simple button out of empty air...that is anchored in place. Like an invisible door bell, for example. Want to push the button, then you have to move your hand to where the button is located.

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=162209...

    Microsoft is only a generation away from the technology I shared with it back in 2004. If they want to use intangible controls in a true composited reality--intangible reality--that multiple people can share? And believe me they do.... Them they will have to follow my approach. That shared IR will be the next generation of the World-Wide Web by the way. Do not doubt me.

    For example, right now they can create intangible reality using a different approach from mine (though I created a functional intangible control apparently first). It does, however, create IR as exactly the same composited-reality concept that I laid out to them. But Hololens uses same depth camera strategy as Kinect--and has same limitations. It is essentially a one-channel approach, and is limited by line of sight.

    Want to practice martial arts with an intangible (not virtual--there is a difference--ask me what) opponent? You can't do it using HoloLens approach. System will not track your foot unless it is in your line of sight, and even then the depth tracking without attached sensors is limited in quality, range, and is effectively one channel.  Want to see full-body avatars of others that move arms and legs as they actually are doing? You can't. My approach enables all of this.

    So. Expect to see more Warner DNA at some point. Microsoft will change approach to 12 small wearable sensors at each primary joint plus the headset. There will be a small unit that is positioned in center of intangible reality "arena" too. It coordinates with the sensors to create the bidirectional coordinate system between the virtual and real worlds.

  • UCantTouchThat says:

    (Also note that my type of intangible control does not require you to look at it to exist.  Once defined, you do not need to wear a headset for it to exist.  A push button (or palm tree) is there and you can interact with it in the defined ways, even if cannot see it.  A button can be pushed in the dark.  A palm tree can be bumped into (and the secret scroll falls out) even though you are not looking at it.  The iCAML technology raises the ceiling on the abilities of IR.)

  • UCantTouchThat says:

    Hmmm...moderated my other comment on my technology I shared with Microsoft in 2004.  Sad.  Maybe will be approved later?  Hope so.  You would want to know about it...it is the future.

  • UCantTouchThat says:

    My proof-of-concept device from 2004. It created a single, simple, intangible control and a composite intangible reality using the multichannel sensor approach I shared with Microsoft (and HP and Apple).

    It can create a simple button out of empty air...that is anchored in place. Like an invisible door bell, for example. Want to push the button, then you have to move your hand to where the button is located.

  • UCantTouchThat says:

    (Sorry, moderator not letting me share link of pic.)

    Microsoft is only a generation away from the technology I shared with it back in 2004. If they want to use intangible controls in a true composited reality--intangible reality--that multiple people can share? And believe me they do.... Them they will likely have to follow my approach. That shared IR will be the next generation of the World-Wide Web by the way. Do not doubt me.

    For example, right now they can create intangible reality using a different approach from mine (though I arguably created the first functional intangible control, using different approach).  It does, however, create IR with exactly the same vision of a composited geospatially-anchored intangible reality that I laid out to them. But Hololens uses same depth camera strategy as Kinect--and has same limitations. It is essentially a one-channel approach, and is limited by line of sight.

    Want to practice martial arts with an intangible (not virtual--there is a difference--ask me what) opponent? You can't do it using HoloLens approach. System will not track your foot unless it is in your line of sight, and even then the depth tracking without a sensor on foot is not good. Want to see full-body avatars of others that move arms and legs as they actually are doing?  Want multiple networked people to be able to walk around your 3D 13-channels of motion avatar and see it simultaneously from different relative angles and distances?  You can't.  My core technology enables all that.

    So. Expect to see more "Warner DNA" or inspiration at some point. Microsoft will change approach to 12 small wearable sensors at each primary joint plus the headset. There will be a small unit that is positioned in center of intangible reality "arena" too. It coordinates with the sensors to create the bidirectional coordinate system between the virtual and real worlds.

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