Microsoft had a big surprise in store on Wednesday at its Windows 10 preview event in Redmond, Wash.: a new headset called HoloLens that lets people see—and manipulate—3-D “holograms.” No, Microsoft hasn’t found a way to project Princess Leia into the air, Star Wars-style. But it has built something that could be a step in that direction.
Microsoft’s so-called holograms bridge the gap between augmented reality and virtual reality. With the large headset on, users can still see the real world, and computer generated objects are displayed in front of them. These objects are controlled using motion sensors built into the headset, so ideally, even though a user will wave their hands around in the air to use HoloLens, they shouldn’t risk running into furniture or walls in the office or at home.Microsoft’s HoloLens headset Joanna Stern/The Wall Street Journal
Alex Kipman—the Microsoft engineer who helped create the Xbox’s Kinect motion-sensing camera—stressed that HoloLens is running Windows 10, making it more attractive than other nascent platforms for app developers. And, unlike the majority of 3-D headsets built by the likes of Oculus, Sony and Epson, HoloLens is a standalone wireless device, with no cables running to a smartphone or PC or handheld controller of any sort.
Kipman said HoloLens is being built for both entertainment and productivity, with apps for playing games, video chats and designing three-dimensional objects. In demoing HoloLens on stage at Microsoft’s press event, Kipman said “holograms can become part of our everyday life.”
Microsoft demoed an application for the headset called HoloStudio that allows users to manipulate 3-D objects that can only been seen by those wearing the headset. Objects float in space and users can change their shape, size and color. They can save the results as a 3-D file, and even send it to a 3-D printer.A Microsoft employee uses the HoloStudio to “build” a quadcopter in virtual space, at an event in Redmond, Wash., on Wednesday. We can see the design and studio interface because, as part of the demonstration, Microsoft’s camera also incorporated the HoloLens technology. Microsoft
It’s hard for untrained users to create things using today’s 3-D design software, because so much relies on understanding how to manipulate a 3-D object in a 2-D space (that is, your computer monitor). Microsoft sees bringing 3-D object creation to the 3-D space as a way of smoothing out that process, and making it easier for novices.
With HoloLens, Microsoft is diving into an increasingly competitive world of 3-D headsets. Many companies are betting that sort of head-mounted computing will be the next great frontier for human/computer interaction. But, so far, none have taken off with developers in a meaningful way and almost all of them are sold to app and game makers rather than consumers.
The biggest name in virtual reality, Oculus Rift, has yet to deliver a consumer product, despite its $2 billion sale to Facebook last year. Samsung’s Gear VR headset, built for the Galaxy Note smartphone in collaboration with Oculus, is also sold only as a developer prototype. Other manufacturers, from optics giant Carl Zeiss to popular gaming hardware developer Razer, have their own virtual reality products in the works.
Google Glass—an augmented-reality headset rather than one that completely obscures the user’s view—received mixed reviews and experienced continual shipping delays before Google halted the project for an overall reboot.
The point is, while many think head-mounted computers will take off, none have yet. That means that Microsoft has as good a chance as any company at defining this emerging space, said James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst. “If successful, HoloLens will ultimately expand the way people interact with machines just as the mouse-based interface did in the 1990s, and touch interfaces did after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, ” McQuivey said in a statement.
Microsoft’s Kipman said that HoloLens will be available around the time Windows 10 goes on sale, which is expected before the end of the year. However, he didn’t say how much HoloLens would cost, or if it will be marketed to the public or sold merely as a developer prototype, like most of the current crop of competitors.