Microsoft is really determined to go ahead in the race of making advanced software products among its peers in 2016. For its attempt to include a big innovation to Windows user’s experience, a device out of science fiction was materialized – the Microsoft Hololens. Microsoft might have been at the losing end in the smartphone wars but this radical product could change everything we know about computers and mobile phones.
Its main premise is to augment reality (Augmented Reality – AR). This enables users to see the physical world while laced with holographic interfaces. The conceptualization began 5 years ago in which Hololens was still being kept as a top secret project.
The Reason for Conception
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted that they made a big mistake when they thought personal computers will be a user’s computing device forever. Microsoft used to have a market where all establishments run a Windows PC. Since smartphones dominate the market, more people switch to these gadgets for their needs. This company has then suffered decreasing sales and was forced to lay off thousands of employees in 2015 as a result.
However, Microsoft executives also think that they will commit the same mistake twice if they spend time chasing the smartphone wars even if these are the cash cows right now. They felt a need to make a bold move which counts as its most ambitious to date. Hence, the Microsoft Hololens. This product will also determine if Nadella can restore the company’s image of creativity and inventiveness which went under the rug for a long time.
The idea for creating a mixed reality platform was conceived as early as 2007 by Alex Kipman. The idea initially evolved from the motion sensing gaming device Kinect, which was released in 2010. This product went on to become the fastest selling consumer device of its type. In 2010, another project whose codename was Barbaroo began with Kipman who served again as the lead inventor. However, he had a grander goal this time. He envisioned an analog universe with its own set of rules. Whenever you are going to use a computer in the future, your voice or gesture will be enough to make commands while objects from the virtual reality pile at the top of the physical object. In short, a mixed reality.
After five years of developing Hololens through Kipman and his team of Microsoft engineers with a help from NASA, the project was announced publicly by Microsoft last January 2015. As of the moment, it is rumored to be released on the first quarter of 2016.
The developer’s version of the Microsoft Hololens is announced at $3,000 which is a tad expensive when compared against the Oculus Rift, its nearest cousin. The customer version might be lower, but a significant difference in prices is not expected.
Microsoft Hololens is an augmented reality headset where you can see the physical world along with a holographic user interface. They designed it with emphasis on balanced weight distribution, to avoid undue pressure on the ears and nose. It weighs about 0.9 lbs (0.4 kilograms). The headset has two rings: the outer and the inner one. The former contains the Hololen’s important components as well as the volume and brightness control. Meanwhile, the inner ring holds your head. It has adjustable wheels in the headband which purpose is to have a comfortable fit to a wide range of adult users. Its other function is for adjusting the distance of the Hololens to your eyes (i.e. for people who are wearing glasses). To make the users more comfortable, the inner ring has also a soft cushion. This device is also untethered as it has a built-in battery which can last up to 5.5 hours; so you can walk wherever you want while using it.
In order to materialize the goal of incorporating mixed reality, the headset has a sensor which serves as a means to capture the physical world and your movements with a camera which has a 120 degrees field of view. The holographic processing unit (HPU) is a silicon IC. Microsoft claims to have installed a faster computing system than any laptop, which is capable of processing large amounts of data. It also cools by itself, hence, the lesser need for a built-in fan. Meanwhile, the advanced optics are composed of high definition lenses which can project multi-dimensional full-colored images in order to create holograms.
During the press event conducted by Microsoft for developers and journalists, the general aesthetics of the design was given a unanimous praise. The headset looks premium and nothing about it feels cheap. The unit still needs some improvements in terms of design though. Some had to continually readjust and re-tighten the hologram to be in place. There are also claims that the Hololens feels heavier on the front, which makes sense since this is where the user interface is located. A more even weight distribution (channeling some weight in the back) is suggested for a more comfortable experience.
It is mentioned earlier that Microsoft Hololens looks premium but there are some certain concerns as regards to its durability. This issue was also not answered during the press event. For safety purposes, you can think that this is more suited for business related matters than for the hands of your kids.
The Holographic Experience
The Microsoft Hololens is running on a Windows 10 Operating System. The company stated that this OS is the first platform to support holographic computing with an application programming interface (API) which enables various commands (gaze, gesture, voice and scanning). In Windows 10, Microsoft dubbed holograms as Universal Windows Apps (as these can be turned to holograms).
Holograms are images which are entirely composed of light. They are basically like the images created by PowerPoint projectors. In case of Microsoft Hololens, these are presented in the physical world at the top of the real life objects.
The developers who were present in the demo event were shown various visual flairs of the Microsoft Hololens and they saw why this one is a real potential game changer. These holograms translated in your field of view will be vibrant because these are rendered in high resolution. Hololens is described like the world’s highest quality projector, whose pictures are shown directly through your eyes. The holograms are also not disrupted, while some persons pass through them.
The images are also ridiculously good and some even venture to say virtual reality headsets are no match for this type of quality. These images also act like their real life counterparts, like what they experienced in Project Origami where these holographic papers moved and sounded like real entities, as they manipulated them. With a little help from NASA, some users were also amazed by realistic Mars images. They were able to experience treading the red planet’s surface while guided by a NASA engineer. The sound complements the images by creating an ambiance in its effort to immerse users to the mixed reality. It goes louder when you go nearer the object and it fades when you go away.
The Microsoft Hololens feels like watching a 15-inch television while being two feet away when you are wearing the headset according to Bruce Harris, a Microsoft Technical Evangelist. These visual tricks work best when viewed from the distance as a result. While it can be attributed to the lenses, a major chunk of your vision is lost – especially if you are keen to your peripheral view. If you go too near to the hologram, some of its parts will be cut off because it will be left out off your field of view as seen from the screen. Hence, you might have to take some steps backwards for you to see it again. This is perhaps the biggest complaint of the developers who have been in Microsoft’s press events. Hololens will be improved before its release, though a full vision is not expected to emulate in its final product, as stated by Microsoft executive Kudo Tsunoda.
The limited field of vision kept the developers to be immersed completely. However, everyone who was present in the demo room agreed that Microsoft Hololens is serious and impressive in attaining the concept of mixed reality.
Interaction with the User Interface
There are various ways to interact with the Microsoft Hololens’ system. First is Glance: you can point your head anywhere and the unit will respond. Next is AirTap, by which you raise a finger then move it down like you are using a lever. Third is Voice, by which you can use some commands to open or switch which application you are using. Lastly, the Mouse, by which your typical computer mouse can also interact with holograms.
Excluding the use of a mouse, making glances is the easiest control to get used with. The voice control is also relatively easy to learn, but there may be lags between delivering the command and the Microsoft Hololens actually following it. Although it has been reported that the delay does not last for more than a second. The AirTap is notably the hardest one to master because you have to determine the correct distance from the unit to your hand when executing this command. It was nothing but simple putting your fingers down but you might need guidance in case you were able to get a hold of a unit.
Microsoft Hololens also features applications running in the Windows 10 OS. In the Annual Builder’s Conference hosted by Microsoft, it was shown that these applications are literally operating on walls including a holographic start-up menu once you wear the headset. The applications alone are truly immersive as you can use Skype while facing the wall when you are talking to the other line as if you are in a futuristic movie. On Youtube ie, you can play the video and it feels like you are really there, as passive observer taking notes or just enjoys the filming.
Perhaps one of its most amazing quirks is the Holo Studio. This is where developers are able to develop 3D objects even without a former proper training.
Product demonstrations showed that Microsoft Hololens was able to pull some punches in gaming but its use is forecasted to be seen in office and work related areas. The Holobuilder, a game also designed by MineCraft creators, was singularly praised for its ability to build a digital landscape in physical space. The combination of virtual and physical realities added more to the satisfaction of the users.
Microsoft announced that the Hololens will be available to selected developers, to ensure close support and the improvement of this very ambitious mixed reality project. You can also get a developer’s version if you are a Windows insider. The company also hopes that the release of developer’s edition will enable them collaborate with various developers to explore new commands and possibilities with this new technology.
Units will be initially shipped to United States and Canada and there’s also a limit order of 2 Hololens sets per person. No date was announced for its release for the rest of the world, but it is hoped a customer version will be finished by 2017. It will also not be available in the Microsoft Store by the time of its release. The company intends to deliver the units directly to those whose application for pre-order was approved.
With Microsoft losing the smartphone wars, it decided not to follow the status quo and make its own computing device which is practically one of the most impressive we’ve in recent years. Initial assessments stated that it is mostly successful in making the mixed reality through holograms which can be manipulated like real life objects. The demo version is still far from perfect with developers citing the small field of view as its most crucial issue. Should Microsoft be able to improve Microsoft Hololens’ glaring weakness, the way we know how mobile technology works will surely change forever. What do you think?