Microsoft Turns Sci-Fi into Reality with HoloLens

Diehard Star Trek fans (or Trekkies, as we’re called) know that the seminal science fiction TV show of the 70’s was actually a secret propaganda piece by the aliens to help humanity evolve to the next level of galactic sentience with warp drive starships, beam transporters and phaser guns! One of the coolest concepts introduced in the show was the HoloDeck – a ‘reality simulator’ room where any scenario, be it entertainment or combat training, could be recreated using holographic projections. Now Microsoft has launched something arguably much cooler that creates holographic projections anywhere, on any surface.

Microsoft HoloLens

The First Holographic Wearable Device

Called the HoloLens, the prototype device was announced at the Windows 10 launch event on Wednesday. The expectations for the event were measured since everyone knew about the new Windows and its headline One-OS pitch packaged around a slew of incremental updates, but Microsoft shocked everyone with the announcement of the HoloLens at the end. There was an on-stage demo that convinced everyone that this was much more than a concept and has been in the development pipeline for quite some time – applause followed, both for the comprehensive feature reveal and for preventing its leak before the event!

According to the initial reports from the select few who got to try out the prototype back-stage, the device works pretty much as advertised, “The holographic images were bright, saturated, and reasonably opaque, giving the virtual objects a real feeling of solidity”, wrote Peter Bright of ArsTechinca. The production unit will be entirely self-contained, auto-calibrating and wireless although the prototype has a large compute unit worn on a neck strap with an umbilical cord for power and requires manual input of user specific data like the distance between the eyes.

A hologram is basically a three-dimensional image made by recording interference, diffraction and intensity of light and then simply illuminating the recording. The image changes as the position and orientation of the viewing system changes in exactly the same way as if the object were still present, thus making the image appear 3D. Adding holograms to your surroundings creates Augumented Reality (AR). Of the various AR scenarios that Microsoft showcased, there was playing a game of Minecraft, live interactive assistance over Skype and exploring Mars’ surface.

Battle Royale: HoloLens vs. Oculus Rift vs. Google Glass

HoloLens vs. Oculus Rift

Wearable face-computers lunged into the limelight with Google Glass (officially abandoned now) which had the innards of a smartphone and was practically unusable without one! It sparked privacy concerns, was banned from clubs and theatres, and inspired the label “Glassholes” for anyone wearing it in public! Even though the tiny prism screen wasn’t immersive enough for anything other than notifications and basic tasks, Glass showed that information access and consumption could be liberated from the tyranny of handheld/fixed displays.

Oculus Rift was introduced not long after Glass and was heralded as the second coming of Virtual Reality (VR) after the failed first attempt of the 90s (remember Virtual Boy?). It generated immense enthusiasm in the gaming community and the company managed to bring on-board the legendary game developer John Carmack. It has steadily improved its hardware design, reducing latency and improving the tracking speed but still it requires being tethered to a high-end PC. Also, its usage outside of gaming/entertainment is limited since VR locks you into the realm of the headset unlike AR which enhances your perspective. Another difference between VR and AR is the display technologies used but more on this later. The Oculus branded Samsung Galaxy Gear VR solves the wire problem as it is powered by a smartphone but that’s just not enough power for anything other than simple consumption.

Microsoft’s implementation with the HoloLens is exceptional since it packs the computing unit within the headset like Glass but using components that will be an order of magnitude faster. It will also be wireless thus dramatically expanding its usage scope. The display technology used in VR headsets like Rift only shows flat, 2D images in what is essentially a black box – you can’t see what’s outside. Your brain is tricked into perceiving depth or 3D by showing different images to each eye, but your eyes are always focused on the flat screen right in front of them. Technical details of the HoloLens are awaited, but “Light Fields” are possibly involved, “When you look at a real object, the depth at which your eyes are focused changes as you look at objects at different distances away. If we leave out those focus cues we get an experience that’s not quite realistic,” says Gordon Wetzstein of the Computational Imaging Research Group at Stanford University. Light fields are simply 3D patterns of light rays that our eyes take in from the real objects around us and Microsoft has somehow managed to create a transparent light-field display (unlike the Rift which has a traditional screen) along with depth sensing camera to accurately integrate holograms onto real world surfaces.

In short, the holograms created by HoloLens are not tricks, they are the real deal. The promotional video by Microsoft ambitiously proclaims it as the “Next PC” and suggests applications of HoloLens in 3D modeling, education, immersive gaming and more poised to be unlocked once developers get cracking with the API.

The details are sparse and commercial availability timeline remains in the ether, but still, Microsoft HoloLens wins this fight by comprehensively knocking out Glass and Rift!

But Wait, There’s More!

The great thing about technology is that there will always be new stuffs to be excited about and the wow of now will inevitably be usurped by something wow-er! In that way, the forward march of technology is in itself the great leveller for those involved in its progress. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the win awarded to Microsoft HoloLens in the previous section is already in danger from a new contender in the AR arena. Meet Magic Leap.


Magic Leap Augumented Reality

Nobody had heard about Magic Leap until October last year when it received $542 million in funding from major Silicon Valley investors led by Google to develop hardware for a new kind of AR. Their patent filings mentions light field which suggests that their implementation might be similar to what Microsoft has done with HoloLens. But there might be more to it, “It’s not holography, it’s not stereoscopic 3D,” says Rony Abovitz,  Founder and CEO of Magic Leap. “You don’t need a giant robot to hold it over your head, you don’t need to be at home to use it. It’s not made from off-the-shelf parts. It’s not a cellphone in a View-Master”. Hmm so its not like Glass, or Rift, or even HoloLens? I’m at my wit’s end but at least their press release statement promises plenty competition for HoloLens, “Using our Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal™, imagine being able to generate images indistinguishable from real objects and then being able to place those images seamlessly into the real world.”

The AR space is heating up and one can only imagine the magical, crazy ideas that it will spawn and the implications it will have on our lives. How do you plan to use these futuristic devices? Let us know in the comments below!

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