Microsoft HoloLens: Everything you need to know about the futuristic AR headset

It was the last thing anyone expected - an augmented reality headset, years in the making, announced by Microsoft at its Windows 10 event. The HoloLens headset is a bold piece of hardware and the most exciting evidence yet that Microsoft is taking wearable tech seriously.

Sign me up now for a Microsoft HoloLens

But there's much to confuse - we're used to seeing AR in sleeker smartglasses like Google Glass, not bulky VR-style wraparound headsets. 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. Finally, the pics and demos we've seen are of a very early device, you won't be buying one of these anytime soon.

Read on for details, 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. We don't know the weight yet, reportedly around 400g, but the 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's also no wires and no phones involved as this appears to be a standalone device.

The set up consists of holographic lenses, a depth camera as well as speakers above the ears and on board processing via a CPU, GPU and HPU (holographic processing unit). There's also a vent to keep the headset from overheating.

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 has a bigger field of view of 120 degrees by 120 degrees. We say 'it', there's actually 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 like those found in Google Glass and rival smartglasses and goggles from Sony and others. There's 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 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.

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

Here's something - there's no keyboard or controller, the HoloLens is controlled entirely by gestures and voice. The only physical controls on the device are the power switch, a volume button and contrast controls for the holographic lenses.

That's a bit of a gamble by Microsoft as both new forms of interacting with tech - gesture and voice - have plenty of kinks to be ironed out before we trust them as much as using a keyboard and mouse.

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 voice controls

Gestures don't always make sense for navigating menus and opening apps so microphones on the headset - we're not sure how many yet - 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 otherwise. That's especially because an upgraded version of the personal assistant was announced at the Windows 10 event - it 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 it 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 depending 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. What can you actually do with a HoloLens headset?

It doesn't get more legit than NASA wanting to play and one of the first demos Microsoft is pushing no less than 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. 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 - both of which wouldn't be possible with an Oculus Rift

What about the rest of us? Like other high precision depth cameras, there's 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 much more likely to be useful to designers who can be as precise as the cameras and software are.

For the rest of us? Microsoft also has an early app that lets an engineer give you instructions over Skype over how to fix a light switch safely, sketching circles and arrows as holograms onto what you're seeing 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.

The release date

The release date for the HoloLens hasn't been announced yet and we'd wager that it will be at least 12 months until we can buy a consumer edition of the headset. Then again, maybe Microsoft will be able to get it on sale by Christmas 2015.

Before then, it plans 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. Until then, we'll keep this need to know updated with any new specs, details or software announcements while we wait.

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