Just as Google Glass might be headed into limbo, Microsoft has unveiled last week a new augmented reality headset, the HoloLens.
Microsoft said it will release the ski-goggle-like HoloLens about the same time as its new operating system Windows 10 later this year. Analysts say the device may have industrial 3-D modeling applications, as well as find use in the home and for games.
Whereas virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift envelop a person's field of vision, blocking his or her view of the real world, augmented reality headsets superimpose images onto the real world to create a mixed reality. "Unlike virtual reality headsets, you can actually see what's ahead of you in real life, so you won't trip over the couch or something like that," says Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at technology analyst firm Moor Insights & Strategy.
The HoloLens displays images that appear much like holographic projections, and provides surround sound as well. The brains of the headset include a CPU, GPU, and a so-called "holographic processing unit." The system can track eye movements, listen to voice commands, and can follow hand gestures much like a Microsoft Kinect. (Alex Kipman at Microsoft developed both the Kinect and the HoloLens.)
Moorhead was invited to preview the HoloLens, and tried four apps. In one, "I was installing a dimmer switch on a wall, and I had a person on Skype on the right-hand side of my screen walking me through exactly how to do it," Moorhead says. "And because they could see what I'm seeing as well, they could annotate my actions, use a green pen to mark the right wires to connect, or point me to which tools I should pick up. That was cool."
Remote assistance may be a key app for augmented reality. "My lab has done work with the Office of Naval Research about remote maintenance and training, so when something breaks on ship, one can dial up or beam in an expert," says Mark Bolas, director of mixed reality research at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.
In another application that Microsoft developed in conjunction with NASA, "I was standing on the surface of Mars," Moorhead says. "I could get the Mars rover to do things like take a picture, or get it to shoot a laser into a rock to determine what the rock is made of."
The next app Moorehead tried involved the popular game Minecraft, which Microsoft acquired last year. "The Minecraft buildings and characters were sitting on all the furniture in the room," he says. "The room had been mapped into the game, so I could walk around the room and interact with the game. One of the neatest scenes involved me setting off TNT on top of the table, which blew a virtual hole in it, and I could see into the hole to where characters had fallen into virtual molten lava."
The last app was a holographic studio, where people could design 3-D models they could make real using 3-D printing and other technologies. "We watched a person building a character, a mouse on a rocketship," Moorhead says. "We also watched him building a car, putting flames on its sides, add wheels, add a duck as a hood ornament, doing it in virtual space. He could move around the object, use his hands to resize and recolor. I think this would be good for anyone doing any kind of professional 3-D modeling, whether designing a car or a faucet. It would be huge if SolidWorks or Adobe jumped on board with this."
The HoloLens has drawn many comparisons to Google Glass, but "this is really different," says Moorhead. "I think the HoloLens has a much better chance at being successful because it's not trying to do everything. Google Glass was intended to be worn all the time, unlike the HoloLens, which is really there to be worn for a few hours at a time. You're not trying to walk around with this on the street—you might walk around the workplace or around the house for a specific purpose, for a narrow set of things. That could allow it to deliver a really awesome experience—it doesn't have to have the best battery life, so you can put a much higher-performance set of chips in there."
"In addition, with Google Glass, the display was in your peripheral vision, but with the HoloLens, it's in front of both your eyes in your main field of view, so you get to interact with a lot more things," he says. One drawback might be "that you're not going to walk around the city with the HoloLens like you might with Google Glass, but that might also be a plus as well. I'm a Google Explorer—I paid my US $2,000 for Google Glass, and I have to tell you, even tho it's smaller than the HoloLens, people still look at you funny."
Moorhead noted that the HoloLens he used was a development unit, a large prototype connected to a PC. Much remains unknown about what the final product will be like, but it is supposed to be an untethered device. "We don't know what its battery life is," Moorhead says. "We don't know what [independent software vendors] have committed to it. We don't know how much it will cost."
Still, Moorhead thought the HoloLens may have a high chance of success. "I haven't been very complimentary of Microsoft in the last five years, but if they deliver what they say will with the HoloLens, they will sell a lot of these, maybe a half-million, which would be a smashing success for version 1.0," he says. "I think it will be monumentally more successful than Google Glass. Although, that's easy to do."
However, Google may not be out of the running with augmented reality. In October, Google and other companies invested $542 million in Florida-based startup Magic Leap, which is working on its own augmented reality technology. "I'm excited by the momentum that we're seeing from Microsoft, Google and Facebook toward pushing the real and virtual world together," USC’s Bolas says. "I think mixed reality and virtual reality will be the next computing platform."
Charles Q. Choi is a science reporter who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum. He has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, and Science, among others.