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. It was also the first sign that Microsoft was taking AR and VR seriously, with the second sign being its line of lower-end Windows Mixed Reality headsets. However, it also comes with a bold price: $3,000. Whether you bought the Development Edition in March 2016 or grabbed the version opened up to anyone with a Microsoft account a couple months later, that bold price stayed bold. Ouch.
Hands-on: Microsoft HoloLens review
A consumer version of the headset is still to come though. Microsoft is promising a future filled with holograms, but it might be a while before that future is realized.
Read on for details, specs, explanations and analysis of every last inch of Microsoft's HoloLens headset, its Holographic platform, and what's coming next.
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 that's designed to evenly distribute all 579g of its weight of the headset along the crown of your head, avoiding putting pressure on your eyes and nose. That band is also adjustable to a variety of adult heads - so yeah, this isn't for children. Most importantly, there are also no wires and no phones involved - it's a standalone device.
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The stars of the show here are the holographic high-definition lenses that use a projection system to create multi-dimensional full-color images with low latency. There are also a host of advanced sensors, like ambient light and four environment sensing cameras, that can work together to figure out what you're doing and what environment you're in. All of this information is then processed by the custom HPU (holographic processing unit), mapping everything out in real time.
There are no fans to keep the headset cool, but there is a vent that allows all that heat to escape from. All of this is backed up by 2GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage. As for connectivity, it supports both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which had been expected. We also know that the processor uses an Intel 32-bit architecture and an unspecified GPU.
If you need to take photos or record mixed reality video, there's a 2-megapixel HD camera with audio capture, which uses an array of four microphones. Oh, and there are also speakers just above the ears. They use spatial audio, and Microsoft says they synthesize the audio so you can hear your holograms from anywhere in the room.
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, which kind of look like a super enthusiastic pinch.
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
Part of the HoloLens magic is the depth camera. It works like a smaller version of the Kinect camera on Xbox, but it uses one-tenth of the power and has a field of view equivalent to a 15-inch screen from two feet away. The depth camera is what HoloLens uses to "see" and understand your environment. So they can figure out where your desk is, which hand you're holding out for gestures and help track your head movements with help from other sensors on 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 HoloLens gets really exciting, because what you see through the lenses isn't a simple transparent version of your smartphone interface, like Google Glass. Microsoft is going full AR with virtual 3D models of objects that can either appear as part of your real surroundings or combine with reality to make up entirely new ones.
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, which makes said object feel like a real part of your environment. Thanks to a lack of wires, a big advantage over, say, an Oculus Rift, the HoloLens is 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 HoloLens using its Mixed Reality platform. To do that, you're going to have to tie-in to Windows 10, which will make it easier for developers to get on board. So no, it's not totally an attempt to get Windows 10 back in front of our faces.
The HoloLens is controlled by gestures, voice, and a small Clicker controller to make things a little more varied. 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, so far it seems Microsoft has got to an acceptable level of reliability, and it's going further. Microsoft is constantly working on new gestures and ways to interact with your mixed reality. One example is 'holding', which would allow anyone wearing the HoloLens to grasp and manipulate objects in a virtual 3D space. It's kind of like Leap Motion modeling and sculpting apps, so think of that and you'll see the potential here.
'Holding' was debuted back at the Windows 10 Devices event in October 2016; Microsoft showed off a game called Project Xray, in which the user picked up and used a virtual glove gun.
The voice controls
And of course, since this is Microsoft, it should be no surprise that its steadily improving voice assistant, Cortana, is along for the ride. She'll be able to guide you through your HoloLens experience, much like she can on Windows PCs. Gestures don't always make sense when navigating menus or opening apps, so the HoloLens microphones will be able to capture your voice commands. Plus, won't your arms eventually get tired?
Cortana is able to do pretty much what you expect of her. She can answer your questions, like what the best time to visit Machu Picchu is. Additionally, she can also help you search the web and complete various system tasks.
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 will deliver spatial audio. This means that in-app or in-game audio will come from different directions based on where you are in relation to the virtual object making the sound. Just like, y'know, 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? Microsoft showcases a small selection of the nearly 150 HoloLens apps on its website, which includes the likes of Skype and other interesting games and experiences.
Two of the newest experiences are HoloGuide and HoloHear. HoloGuide will, well, guide you through low visibility areas while HoloHear can instantly translate speech into sign language for deaf people. There's also Teomirn, which can overlay prompts and instructions on a real piano to help turn you into Beethoven.
There are plenty more, too. HoloStudio lets you can create holograms and turn them into 3D objects using a 3D printer. Actiongram beta uses holograms to tell stories, and 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 – one of the first demos Microsoft was 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 are 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 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 set of wheels. 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.
NASA and Microsoft are also 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.
So 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.
But let's face it, get the right game and the HoloLens could blow up. Microsoft thinks that game is Minecraft, which it owns, and we're inclined to agree.
Thus far, Pokemon Go is the one AR game on mobile that has really taken off. One part of that was everyone's love for Pokemon, and the second part was being able to see those adorable little creatures hanging out in the real world. Minecraft is the one other property that has the potential to hit on that level. Imagine playing holographic Minecraft in your living room, collaborating and building things. Sounds tempting, right?
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Microsoft, for a time, was also looking to crowdsource ideas from passionate HoloLens enthusiasts. It was called Share Your Idea, and it aimed to make it easier for developers, coders and others to pitch ideas for HoloLens apps and interesting ways the technology could be used. The Redmond company picked the top three options and held a Twitter vote to pick the winner.
The winner was the Galaxy Explorer app, which HoloLens designers and developers built. Once that was done, Microsoft open sourced the code so that the HoloLens community could build off of it for sure ideas.
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
There still is no release date for a consumer version of HoloLens, and it's unlikely there will be one announced anytime soon. For now, the idea is to get HoloLens in the hands of as many developers and enterprises as possible, kind of like Google did with its initial tech celeb Explorer campaign for Glass.
The Development Edition of HoloLens will set you back $3,000 while the Commercial Suite will cost you $5,000. The Developer variation is available to developers and anyone with a Microsoft account. You can buy up to five headsets per Microsoft account.
As for the future, we know that Microsoft has skipped over releasing a second generation HoloLens to instead focus on the third-generation model, which will arrive in 2019. We don't know what features it could gain, or whether it'll be more consumer friendly, but we can't wait to find out.