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I tried Microsoft's HoloLens: It is mind blowing, but many questions remain

Microsoft announced yesterday many new features for Windows 10 including details on the new phone OS. However, perhaps the oddest part was in the last quarter where the word 'holograms' unexpectedly came up over and again. Of course, this was the prelude to Microsoft HoloLens, the new Windows 10 hologram powered hardware, due sometime in the near future.

The press was invited to an exclusive look at the lab and working prototypes of HoloLens, including four operating scenarios demonstrating real-world application of the helmet. Unfortunately, photos and videos were forbidden as we even had to check our smartphones in a locker. Regardless, here are my thoughts and experience with HoloLens.

Alex Kipman

What it is

Wearable technology that augments the real world is hardly new. The promise of virtual reality (VR) has been around for years, peaking in cheesiness with the movie The Lawnmower Man in 1992. The problems have always been numerous, including dizziness and just underwhelming experiences.

Oculus Rift appears to be the real next-gen VR system for those curious, but it remains to be seen how well it sells. Google Glass is mostly considered a failed experiment, but considering how cautious Google was in selling it, it can be regarded as just that, an experiment.

HoloLens is not any of those though. It is not VR (you can see through the lenses and your environment), and it is not Google Glass (you're unlikely to wear this outside the house). Instead, it uses technology developed by Microsoft from things like Kinect to map things on to your environment.

The final product is a one-size fits all device that looks rather nerdy, but still very clean and elegant. The weight is balanced to feel comfortable, it has no tether to the real world as it is battery powered and runs its own computer (with three processors). You can also wear your glasses with it.

As to battery life? Microsoft has no idea as that finalized design that was publicly demoed is still very new hardware (the lab uses a wearable computer and much rougher looking equipment, more on that later).

Minecraft, Skype, 3D model building and going to Mars

Microsoft escorted the press under heavy security to the secret lab where HoloLens was developed over the last few years. In fact, references to HoloLens appeared back in 2012 when an internal Microsoft PowerPoint deck leaked. In it, 'Fortaleza' was mentioned as a "breakthrough heads up and hands-free device" with "seamless integration of the digital world with the physical world". Yes, folks, this has been a long time in the making.

The current lab versions of HoloLens are much cruder than the near-final production model shown on stage. The latest version has much of the hardware exposed, and you have to wear a somewhat heavy mini PC around your neck, all tethered to more computers. The fact that Microsoft has been able to shrink this down to a small wearable with no wires is impressive.

Four stations were set up for the media, which included different experiences:

  • Skype demo
  • HoloBuilder (Minecraft)
  • HoloStudio (3D model building)
  • OnSite (NASA/JPL Mars Rover)

The HoloBuilder one let you build up a Minecraft world in a room, using bookshelves, the floor, a bench and more. By far the coolest part was the ability to blow virtual holes in your walls or the bench to see beyond it. It was truly a fascinating experience as you felt like you were looking into a new cavern. Another example was digging a hole in the bench, which then let the light through to the floor beneath. HoloLens can create holograms underneath objects, letting you look around corners, below benches and more.

The Skype demo let you install a real light switch, live electricity and all. Luckily, you had guidance through a Skype friend who walked you through the process. The installation was achieved by sharing your view with your Skype contact, who can then "draw" in your world through a Surface or another computer (she was not using HoloLens). Which wire should I attach? Let your friend draw an arrow in the air pointing to it in your field of vision. Just imagine looking around your room while John Madden draws pointers, circles and diagrams on your walls, objects and more. It was crazy.

Since the HoloLens has speakers, microphones, and cameras, the whole Skype call was "internal" to the device.

3D Printed HoloLens

The HoloStudio segment showed how you could build 3D models in the air, rotating them around, adding things, resizing and more. Once completed, with one touch you could send it off to a 3D printing company who can then send it back to you in the mail. Whether it was printing toys, a USB thumb drive with a Koala Bear (that cute guy pictured above) or a sign for your room, HoloStudio is perfect for pro artists or even hobbyists.

Finally, the OnSite application was in conjunction with NASA and JPL for the Mars Rover mission. By taking 3D imagery taken by the rover and mapping to your world, you can walk on Mars. Even better, you could have a conference call with another scientist to collaborate. With another person in your world, you can see where their gaze is going, put flags down on objects for later and more. The interesting feature was how you could use the PC to manipulate that world and vice versa.

Perhaps the best part of all of these were the experience did not feel gimmicky. They truly felt like real problems that could be solved. Being able to share your environment on Skype ups the whole collaboration thing to a new level, building a virtual city in your living room that you can walk around and manipulate, printing 3D models that you can interact with, it was all well, useful.

HoloLens demo

So many questions

If you asked me what I thought of HoloLens as a personal experience, I'd say it was fantastic. After a few minutes, I felt like I was in that world, that I was really walking on Mars. Having a Skype call appear in your line of vision was fun. Pinning that call to a wall in your room was even cooler.

The problem for Microsoft right now is this: How will they position HoloLens?

I do not know.

Is HoloLens going to be a $299 product aimed at Minecraft fans or a $1299 gizmo for architects, hospitals, and NASA? Will Microsoft push this like Xbox One or let it trickle out like the Microsoft Band?

Since we do not know any of those answers yet, it is hard to make a full judgment on HoloLens. The technology is impressive, make no mistake. I think HoloLens can span so many categories, from brain surgeons to MMOGs (Massive multiplayer online games). There is a role for HoloLens to play just about everywhere.

HoloLens does solve many problems experienced by Google Glass and Oculus Rift. With Glass, you have the social stigma of wearing a heads-up display, which itself is quite limited in function. Oculus Rift is immersive, but perhaps too much so to the point that people can get motion sickness. Oculus is also more narrow in scope of function when compared to HoloLens.

From that perspective, HoloLens is truly a unique entry into this field, and I think it has a better chance of being a real hardware segment for Microsoft. Still, until answers on battery life, pricing, marketing, availability and more become known, I'll remain excited but cautious.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

  • I personally want it. Anyone who says Microsoft can't innovate( cough, my roommate aka google fan boy) was surely proven wrong by this.
  • Hahahaha
  • +930!!!
  • I dont need it, I don't need it, I NEEEED IT!
  • That's not what +930 means! Hahaha, it means "+1", just with my Lumia's name instead of 1
  • The +Phone number think is getting sooo old. Just quit it please and use a +1 as regular folks do. Or better yet, say something like "A Thumbs up"  
  • If the +phone thing is getting old, isn't the +1 thing getting ANCIENT?
  • +8.10.14219.341
  • Or how about use the built in rating system instead of clogging up the forums with pointelss +anythings. Maybe you just aren't aware but that is what the up and down arrows the right of the comment are for.
  • Yeah.... Those arrows are not available in the app, which is what I, and many others use
  • Fair enough
  • SpongeBob :D
  • XD so want this
  • Now this is something we could agree with :D Long live Microsoft
  • Yeah, I definitely want one also.
  • No matter how many times I read this or other articles, I will never understand how this is. I just can't imagine it. So you can "put" a virtual screen on your wall and then walk turn around and it'll still be there?
  • Yes, future is here my frnd -Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note® 4
  • rahul.sharma; You posted with Samsung Galaxy Note 4, what are you thinking? Ok, we still love you, just this time... Welcome rahul.
  • Bawo ni, egbon? Gele yen wun wa o.
  • Thanks :) -Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note® 4
  • Rahul.sharma if u r a real microsoft fan dare to ditch that dead Samsung and get urself a brand new Lumia
  • :) I m still big time MS fan, no one can doubt about this....but Note 4 is awesome ph and currently I dont see any competition to it...will return back with Windows 10 if MS comes with something good this year. Cheers -Posted via the Samsung Galaxy Note® 4
  • Them's fightin' words. Only kidding. I have never played with a Note 4, but have enjoyed my Lumia 1520 greatly since getting it.
  • Happy to hear that
  • No, only the person with the HoloLens will see the holograms.
  • Or other persons with HoloLens can see it. Or other person can have a completely different experience in the same space if they want...
  • Ahhh... finally.... The debate of who wants to watch what on TV has been solved. You put your TV on the wall there and I'll put my TV on the same spot of the wall. Saving marriages the world over.
  • Interactive TV?
  • Mristian; You are killing me. (Want to get me fired at work? making me laugh so loud)
  • DVR has saved mine a few times, lol.  And kept my son content and eating , except when we go to a restaraunt and he can't watch Peppa Pig...
  • Your going to have to ween him off that, one of my nephews is so addicted to peppa pig he watches it 24/7 on his dad's iPad. Unless his around me, he gets a book instead and is finally getting accustomed that he can't watch his fav show when I'm babysitting. The only caveat is the constant running around playing tag lol (which I don't mind).
  • @Mrisitian, lmao!
  • One step closer to the Holodeck. (You know - Star Trek).
  • Yep I definitely also want one, I just hope it does not cost more than 300/400 $  You can tell your roomate that he is an idiot. I mean unless he never heard of windows phone, surface, kinect , etc he has no grounds to say that Microsoft does not inovate.
  • I can't see how this would realistically cost under $1000.
    Come on, its a full computer... with brand new unique technology... and a head mounted display. How could this possibly go for less than a Surface Pro 3?
  • Lol agreed though, id love to have it, but like Daniel mentioned: How would they take action at releasing this and who would they mainly target?
  • I can't help but think it will end on the scrapheap like so many MS innovations for some other fruity company to pick up and turn into a worldwide market.  MS has come up with so many revolutionary technologies and because of lack of vision and marketing just let them twist in the wind and die or outright killed them off. . .
  • Not this time, I've never seen MS so determined as they've been recently.. They are not playing games this time around!
  • They are playing games. They are playing Minecraft. I'd rather play Halo with this.
  • Imagine you just play Halo in a random Forest near you. Level gets created through satellite pictures + gps and well you really run around like a freak. That would be what I dreamed of as a child and pretended to just that.  You could also enhance Laser-Tag with this. Imagine explosions, laser beams travelling the room, smoke and so on.  Damn you can talk about possibilities with HoloLens all day and night.
  • Depends the big thing is the API is embedded into windows. Meaning google glass, occulus etc can us it, just like hp can use windows to promote and sell.
  • There was a econom running Microsoft before. Not so now! (Economs are as we all knows, unable to longer than 3 months ahead.)
  • +925
  • VIVA Microsoft!
  • The thing about google is the R&D department is probably like 90% of their budget. They are really focused on trying new things, even if it doesnt sell or produce money.Space X and Google Car etc. MS tries new things but is more focused on selling licenses.  And it safe to say Apple doesnt even bother researching anything. Maybe just how to market an old idea and sell it for more?
  • The thing about google is the R&D department is probably like 90% of their budget.
    Even in the unliklyhood that Google is spending such a high percentage, it still is only, almost exactly, half of the money that Miscrosoft sinks into R&D. MSFT: ~$9 billion GGL: ~$4.5 billion Update: MSFT: $10.6 B GGL: $6.7B this is more recent data (2013 instead of 2011). Worthy to note that Forbes has shown a correlation between increase in R&D and Profits in tech companies in the last several years. </Update>   Microsoft has traditionally spent a ton on R&D throughout it's lifetime (it's also usually has the second number of software patents created each year, usually behind IBM) and Microsoft Research comes out with numerous products. I think it is a combination of them being largely segregated form the Silicon Valley scene and being a pretty tight lipped company when it comes to research that people perceive they don't inovate as much as they do.
    MS tries new things but is more focused on selling licenses. 
    This is generally what people see. They especially like licensing their patents which people don't usually think of. MSFT makes ~$2 billion in revenue (profits are estimated to ~95% since there isn't much overhead in licensing patents) off it's patents used in Android alone. Many times Microsoft would rather be profitable than be recognized for their research. Also, why is there no freaking spellcheck in the comment section. It's driving me crazy, I can't spell worth crap half the time and I keep having to look up words...
  • Some additional information.  Microsoft has consistently year after year spend considerably more on R&D than Google.
  • Who care about google. I want this!
  • A better name for HoloLens might be to call it something that reflects the depth of the user's experience. For Instance. "VISCERAL" which is short for "VISual Computer Enhanced ReALity"
  • This will be a hot with fleshlight accessories.
  • Lol
  • ROFL!!!
  • Awesome.
  • Made me think of Demolition Man, lol!
  • LOL
  • Lmao!
  • Well Hello there...Cortana.
  • We need an up vote button.
  • There IS one! (on the desktop site)
  • HoloLens bundled with remote controlled over IP Fleshlight and 1 year subscription to a live channel. P/S : Please install latest AntiVirus software. Damage caused by hackers is not the responsibilty of the company.
  • I read the engadget piece. It's a neat concept, bit its far off. I think to preserve the advancement it would be initially like glass. High price maybe invite only and then improve on that and try to make it more practical and charge significantly less. Just as long as it doesn't stay a concept for many years.
  • Its coming out this year. Its not a concept.
  • Didn't they say it would be "in developer's hands" by the end of the year? or maybe it was "by the time Windows 10 ships" or something like that.That's a big distinction, but I can't remember the exact phrasing.
  • "In the Windows 10 timeframe" I believe is what they said, which was very non-committal. I'd imagine they'd want it out before Christmas, of course.
  • Ummmmm, Daniel... I think a very Important question concerning the Hololens is will we be able to take screenshots❓ Any word on this❓
  • Wouldn't the Windows10 timeframe be in the lifecycle of that product? Probably 2 years?
  • "shipping within the Windows 10 timeframe" is what I thought I heard. Whether that means when Windows 10 is released, or sometime before Windows 11, remains to be seen.
  • I seem to recall them saying that some developers could get their hands on it in the second quarter, and that it would be released as a product "in the Windows 10 timeframe"... so probably around the same time as we finally get to see the Windows 10 Lumia(?) flagship phone.
  • Wired seems convinced. I personally trust them (and here) more than Engadget (Engadget more than Gizmodo) I think they should get this out as soon as there is enough to do on it to make it consumer friendly. No less than 50 apps at launch for sure. Battery life at least 3 hours I think. I want to see somebody take the idea and do some crazy stuff with it (like renovation campanies mapping out a bathroom reno and letting the customer see it) 
  • Not that I don't agree, but I should point that that 3 hours is a pretty long time to have a tool like this mounted on your head.  I'm just wondering about expectations being too unreasonable. Oh, a nice little stand that charges the unit would be nice though (ala Nyko XBO/ PS4 chargers).
  • Then again, for a gaming accessory, 3 hours is not long at all. It is not great for industries as it would need to last at least 6 hours. Even for non-gaming general consumption, it would need to be constantly available, especially given the limitation of it being something to use only indoors. I really like the idea of HoloLens, just not sure the tech is quite there yet. MS and its partners need to figure out the viable use-cases of the device in its current form, much like they did when designing the Band.
  • Well i could easily live with a battery pack in my pocket or hell even a small shoulder bag with a bigger battery. That would drastically increase the battery life.  We have Vuzix glasses in our company and they do exactly what I said. The device itself is smaller than the hololens though, but also has smaller computing power.
  • Well i could easily live with a battery pack in my pocket or hell even a small shoulder bag with a bigger battery. That would drastically increase the battery life.
    This is what I thought. I doubt it for the model sold in MSFT stores, but I imagine (well, hope that) some third party manufactures will make external batteries that you can plug the HoloLens into. If I'm wearing this on my head for a 4 hour gaming session I'm not going to notice a little backpack to give it extended play time.
  • Well, innside the house for gaming, you could just as well put vire to the outlet, and then you could plays for days, or even weeks?
  • The Engadget piece is crap. Read the Wired piece
  • Engadget also shit can it in the first paragraph, then goes on to say they know everything about VR and end up saying how impressive it is by the last.... The piece when broken down leaves the reader with a vision of something like,
    " says its a too heavy and uncomfortable concept, they doubt will go anywhere, and they know because they are the experts in VR, but 10 points for trying..."
    How the fk can't someone get excited about this? The potential of it blows my mind, this technology will change the world as we know it.. It's here now!! Can buy it this year! This should have been all over the TV news by now??
  • Because it wasn't made by apple.  
  • I hate acting like us against them, or anti Apple (each to their own) but I can't stand reporters/websites neglecting real news, for their perception of what would be popular... If you report news, report all news, Without bias or opinion! Sites which do that end up being more respeced and trusted = regular returning readers. I didn't always get my WP information from WC, but by experience it is one of only a few I will frequent!
    -End rant- ;)
  • When that day you dream about shows up, please text me
  • Y