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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 21, 2015 at 3:39 PM

Hands-on: Microsoft HoloLens, with video

The credibility of activist investors who said Microsoft should dump its Xbox consumer business is now shot.

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With HoloLens, the holographic computing platform that stole the show at today’s unveiling of Windows 10, Microsoft showed once and for all how valuable it is for the company to weave together its consumer and business product development.

HoloLens looks like a next-generation gaming device, along the lines of the virtual-reality headsets that Sony and Oculus are developing.

The system was developed by the Xbox group, under the guidance of the same person who led the Kinect motion sensor.

But HoloLens turned out to be much more than a game accessory. Microsoft recast it as the bleeding edge of the Windows 10 platform and the foundation of a new computing interface, beyond the voice and touch commands that now complement or replace the mouse and keyboard.

Like the Google Glass headset, the HoloLens is controlled with glances, voice commands and hand gestures. You move your head around to aim the cursor and click it by holding your index finger straight up and then bringing it down toward the thumb as if you were pressing a huge mouse button in the air.

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The company is making HoloLens headgear itself using a special chip to process its holographic image generation. It’s not saying whether other companies will be able to build their own versions but it probably wouldn’t say no if the likes of Dell or HP wants to jump in.

Microsoft doesn’t expect people to wear the HoloLens around all the time. Instead it sees the device as something to wear in particular situations, such as a session of gaming, 3D object creation or workplace collaboration.

The company isn’t saying how much a HoloLens will cost or when it will be broadly available but it’s likely to cost less than a high-end computer. Chief Executive Satya Nadella said it’s intended to be accessible to consumers as well as business users, though the latter seems to be a primary target.

It may take years – even a decade – before HoloLens and other augmented reality devices to be widely used, if they take off at all. But in the interim it puts Microsoft in the conversation among developers and businesses exploring these new platforms.

If this emerging category takes off, Microsoft now has a chance to become a big player – not just because the HoloLens is exciting but because it’s putting HoloLens supporting software into Windows 10 and therefore tens of millions of PCs in the next few years.

It’s a stretch to say that regular PC users will benefit from HoloLens. Few use the Kinect, which is now available for PCs. But the HoloLens still adds much needed sizzle to Windows 10, which is otherwise the solid and straightforward upgrade from Windows 7 that corporate tech users in particular have been wanting for years.

HoloLens could also help Microsoft rebuild its reputation for innovation and it put Nadella on the cover of next month’s Wired magazine.

Perhaps most importantly, HoloLens gives the company the sort of demo that students will line up to try at recruiting fairs and enterprise customers will tell their friends and families after their next trip to Redmond.

Three hands-on demos of the system were given to press and analysts in Redmond today in a warren of showcase rooms in the basement of the Microsoft visitor center. Sleek production models are on display but the demos are done with sci-fi looking test units that have battery packs that hang on the chest and clusters of lenses and computer components that strap onto the head and connect to cables dangling from the ceiling or connected to a nearby PC.

In one demo, the headset was used to call an electrician via Skype. The electrician – using a Surface computer – appeared in a small window in the HoloLens wearer’s field of vision and explained how to install a light switch.

The explanation included doodles. When the “customer” looked toward a row of tools on a tabletop, the electrician talked through the procedure and could point out a tool by drawing on her tablet. She also drew a simple wiring diagram that looked as if it were drawn on the wall next to the switch.

In another demo, the HoloLens was used to play an augmented reality version of “Minecraft.” (pictured above in a Microsoft image.). You first swing your head around to scan a room and map objects and surfaces. Then castles, creatures and other structures appeared on furniture and other surfaces in the room. The digital realm continued underneath tables and even beyond walls and floors.

After calling for a shovel, I used the click gesture to build a ditch across a sideboard and prevent a group of zombies from attacking one of the castles. Then I placed a box of TNT in the group and called for a torch that I placed on the box. After the explosion, most of the zombies were gone and a hole appeared to have been blown in the surface of the sideboard, revealing a cavern and a lava lake below – all rendered by the HoloLens and projected onto the back of my retina.

Other game companies have dabbled with such augmented reality, including Nintendo with its 3DS handheld. But Microsoft takes it to a higher level with HoloLens by mapping the environment, instead of just projecting things on top of it on a screen, and powering more complex interactions with it.

The real jaw-dropper, though, was the recreation of the Mars landscape that Microsoft developed with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and showcased in the Windows 10 keynote presentation.

With the HoloLens on, you’re transported to a literal recreation of Mars built from images taken by the Mars rover, which appears parked to the side as you walk around the breathtaking scenery.

To “do science” in the demo, you point to ridges on the terrain that look like an ancient lake bed and then place a flag with a click gesture. Then you direct the rover to aim a laser at that spot, disintegrating the ground and analyzing the material. At one point the avatar of a fellow scientist appears and you work together choosing sites to examine.

This sort of immersion into a virtual reality is what Oculus and others have been working on with their headsets. Microsoft wrapped in productivity and communications tools and made something remarkable and useful enough that JPL plans to use the system with the actual rover on Mars this summer.

Investors who wanted Microsoft to spin off the group behind HoloLens and focus on enterprise software might have made a little extra cash in the short term.

But that would have flushed this opportunity to help shape the future of computing and potentially get people truly excited about Microsoft again.

The company wouldn’t let outsiders take pictures or film the demos – they even made reporters lock their cell phones in lockers on a different floor – so the only video option is this Microsoft advertorial:

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Comments | Topics: HoloLens, Microsoft, Nintendo

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