NEW YORK—I’m under attack. Robotic aliens are suspended in midair all around me shooting laser type weapons. I fire back. But these determined creatures even hide inside walls, though I can spot them using X-ray vision.
I was indeed playing a game. But what makes this scene remarkable, and really cool, is that the battleground is an actual physical space inside a room at Microsoft’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City.
I’m being treated to a demonstration of Microsoft HoloLens, the Windows 10 based holographic computing system that I first got an early glimpse of last January. I was blown away then. And I’m still wowed by HoloLens, a mixed reality, some would say, augmented reality, experience that reminds you of virtual reality but is in reality quite different. In VR you are fully immersed in a virtual world; in HoloLens the digital world blends with your actual physical surroundings.
Starting today, Microsoft is dedicating space at the Fifth Avenue store to showcase the technology to developers, who will get to experience HoloLens first hand, just as I did. There’s already a lengthy waiting list. Microsoft hopes those developers will build a rich app ecosystem around HoloLens.
The company is coming off a successful 11-city roadshow where it gave in-person demos. The New York developer showcase is the first of its kind in a company store.
Microsoft previously announced that a HoloLens Development Edition will ship during the first quarter of 2016. The company has struck partnerships with the likes of Volvo and Autodesk. But Microsoft remains mum on when consumers will be able to buy a system, much less what HoloLens will cost. If I had to venture a guess, I’d bet on seeing HoloLens by the 2016 holiday season.
What I can report is that HoloLens is progressing quite nicely. When I first tried it on the Microsoft campus nearly a year ago, I strapped a primitive prototype over my eyes. The headgear was connected to a box hanging around my neck that apparently contained all the computing power required to make this bit of gee-wizardry possible.
In one of the demos I experienced back then, a woman appeared in a window laid in space over the real physical objects of a room and by effectively reaching out into my world to draw arrows and diagrams, helped me install a light switch.
This time around, the headgear was untethered and at least for the little bit of time I wore it reasonably comfortable. Before I could even put it on, a Microsoft employee used a pupilometer to measure the distance between my pupils; whenever a final HoloLens version is released to consumers, such pupil measuring capabilities will be built in. I’m told you can wear HoloLens over eyeglasses.
Once slipping HoloLens on my head, I rolled an adjustment wheel on the back to ensure a snug fit. Audio was piped through headphones.
There are three ways to interact with the virtual objects and characters that share your physical surroundings. You can gaze at the subject you want to select. You can use your voice (say “select” to select). Or you can use an “air tap” in which you which you raise your hand with a fist about foot in front of you and tap down and then back up with a single finger, a gesture that performs the functions of a mouse click.
You can view holographic objects from various angles and distances, just like physical objects, but they do not offer any resistance if you come in direct contact. They don’t have any mass. Through the HoloLens technology, the room you’re in is spatially mapped out.
In one of my demos, I was able to scale a three-dimensional hologram against the real world, an aquatic scene. You can resize and copy objects, and spray paint it and change colors, using tools from a holographic toolbox. Moreover, you can transform your finished holographic work into files that you can use to print very real physical representations of what you just designed on 3-D printers. You have effectively created 3-D in 3-D.
Microsoft also demonstrated how HoloLens might be employed to tell a story or to teach, sell, or pitch an idea. For example, a hologram of a make-believe but genuine looking luxury watch was suspended in front of me. I could walk around it, closely examine its components, and read descriptors of various features. When I placed my ear near it to I could hear ticking.
Now imagine how a real watch designer might use such a holographic presentation to explain and show off features, and even learn through “heat maps” which parts of the watch viewers gazed at most often, adjusting the presentation (quite literally) on the fly.
In another brief demo, I crouched down to look up at the solar system.
But on this day, I had the most fun combatting those aliens in the Project X-Ray game, so codenamed because of that x-ray feature that let me see through the actual walls of the room—at least they appeared to be the actual walls.
Indeed, when digital becomes part of the physical and vice versa, the most promising reality is that you’re in for a treat.
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