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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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 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.
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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.
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.
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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.