January 26, 2017

Eye tracking could prove beneficial to both VR and AR.

We’ve covered all sorts of virtual reality headsets from the Oculus Rift, which requires a tethered connection to a powerful PC (though those requirements have almost halved in the past year), to the Playstation VR which only requires a PS4, but the HoloLens from Microsoft is something completely different all together. While the aforementioned headsets utilize virtual reality technology, the Microsoft HoloLens is an augmented reality headset.

What is the Microsoft HoloLens?

Known under development as Project Baraboo, the HoloLens is a head-mounted display with a large visor that runs the Windows Holographic platform under the Windows 10 operating system. The pre-production version of the headset shipped on March 30, 2016, at a cost of $3,000 and is targeted at developers in the United States and Canada. The Development Edition is still available for that same $3,000, but Microsoft has since released a new ‘Commercial Suite’ pack, which includes the Development Edition as well as enterprise features and a warranty.

The headset display is connected to an adjustable cushioned inner band that can tilt the HoloLens up and down, as well as backward and forwards. There is also an adjustable wheel at the back of the headband to secure it. The camera and processors for the HoloLens are situated in the front of the headset and provide an even distribution of weight. The visor, which is a pair of transparent combiner lenses, is tinted and the projected images are displayed in the lower half of the lens.

There are also a pair of small ‘3D audio’ speakers which allow the user to hear sounds both in the virtual environment as well as the real world. The HoloLens generates binaural audio, which can simulate spatial effects, which means the user can perceive and locate a sound, as though it is coming from a virtual pinpoint or location.

HoloLens features a custom-made Microsoft Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) which is made specifically for augmented reality tasks. The main purpose of the HPU is processing and integrating data from the sensors, as well as handling tasks such as spatial mapping, gesture recognition, and voice and speech recognition.

The lenses of the HoloLens use optical waveguides to reflect blue, green, and red across three different layerseach with diffractive features. A “light engine” above each combiner lens projects light into the lens, a wavelength which then hits a diffractive element and is reflected repeatedly along a layer until it is output to the eye.

The HoloLens contains an internal rechargeable battery, with average life rated at 2–3 hours of active use, or 2 weeks of standby time.

What are its standout features?

Microsoft aren’t forthcoming with the low-level specifications of the headset but it features a HD display, which will presumably will be 720p or 1080p. It could be that Microsoft will chose to adopt 4K display technology for the final consumer version but we suspect it would increase the cost of the device too much.

However, the specs that have been established so far are listed below:

  • Dedicated video memory – 114MB
  • Shared system memory – 980MB
  • 64GB Flash storage
  • 2.3 Megapixel widescreen stereoscopic head-mounted display
  • 2.4-Megapixel camera
  • 579 grams
  • Running Windows Holographic OS
  • IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 Low Energy (LE)
  • CPU – Intel Atom x5-Z8100 1.04GHz, Intel Airmont (14nm), 4 Logical Processors, 64-bit

There is also potential for the Microsoft HoloLens to be able to stream the video from the headset to external screens.

What are the most anticipated applications?

While the natural application of virtual reality has typically gravitated towards gaming, augmented reality has a number of applications other than games. A collection of applications are included with the Microsoft HoloLens Developer Edition.

  • Holgrams, a catalogue of a variety of 3D objects that you can place and scale around you; ranging from tigers and cats to space shuttles and planets
  • HoloStudio, a full-scale 3D modelling application by Microsoft with 3D print compatibility
  • An implementation of the Skype telecommunications application by Microsoft
  • HoloTour, an audiovisual three-dimensional virtual tourism application
  • Fragments, a high-tech crime thriller adventure game developed by Microsoft and Asobo Studio, in which the player engages in crime-solving
  • Young Conker, a platform game developed by Microsoft and Asobo Studio, featuring a young version of Conker the Squirrel
  • RoboRaid (previously code-named “Project X-Ray”), an augmented-reality first-person shooter game by Microsoft in which the player defends against a robot invasion, aiming the weapon via gaze, and shooting via the Clicker button or an air tap
  • An augmented-reality first-person shooter game by Microsoft code-named “Project X-Ray”

Most notably is the introduction of Minecraft into the augmented reality environment.

“Microsoft HoloLens introduces all new ways to game with mixed reality, including “Minecraft” on HoloLens, a fully-featured version of “Minecraft” that allows players to explore the game world in full 3-D”

Not only will the HoloLens support native Microsoft applications, but will also play nice with the HTC Vive.

  • Windows Holographic to play nice with the HTC Vive

What can I do with it?

During Microsoft’s Build Event, Microsoft showed off some of the applications and real-world usage of the headset. The device was demonstrated with uses for medical science and also artistic use with 3D models. As for more regular use for the average consumer, Microsoft plans to let any Windows 10 app seamlessly work with HoloLens. For example, a video player app can be projected onto a wall and resized, or stream an Xbox game.

Windows Holographic still will have the same familiar Start Menu found in Windows 10 but can be summoned using Air Tap whereby you tap the air in front of you.

Other applications for the Microsoft HoloLens is plans for Volvo to created a mixed-reality showroom to turn your living room into a space for full-scale projections of cars. You’ll even be able to strip down the car to its individual elements.

“We are thrilled to be working with Volvo Cars to reimagine what is possible in car design, discovery and purchasing,” said Scott Erickson, senior director at Microsoft HoloLens, in a statement. “We’re excited to be at this intersection of technology and human-centric design with Volvo.”

Of course now the Developer Edition is in the hands of those who can create third-party applications, you can expect to see future development of augmented reality apps and games. There have been a number of small projects presented which show off the capabilities of HoloLens technology, including an integration with Pokemon GO, which allows users to throw Pokeballs at Pokemon in holographic space.

How much is it?

Microsoft is still charging $3,000 for the Developer Edition, or $5,000 for a custom commercial suite. As the cost of technology comes down and the product matures, the HoloLens will definitely come down in price, but could still very well have a price tag of over $1,000 when a consumer version is released.

Where do I buy it?

You can buy your own Halolens from Microsoft right now, but you won’t be getting any special perks for being a general consumer. There hasn’t been any information about when a cheaper consumer edition will hit the market, but it’s likely Microsoft wants to thoroughly develop the technology before they make it more readily available.

You can get either model here.

What’s next?

While Microsoft hasn’t announced any major updates to its primary Hololens project, there are a number of new headsets being released in the coming months which use Microsoft’s holographic technologies.

There are multiple of these new VR headsets being developed by different third parties, including Asus, Lenovo, and more. The announced hardware are all tethered to PC’s to power them, unlike the HoloLens. They do however, share many of the Hololens’ characteristics, including AR capabilities mixed in with their VR functions. The headsets are controlled with the user’s voice and hands gestures, not separate handheld controllers.

The headsets use “inside-out six degree of freedom sensors”, which gives them the ability to track their position in virtual space. This means they don’t need any base stations like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift do, which makes them more accessible for general consumers.

The headsets are all quite different in design, and will be available at the end of Q1 2017.

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