Hardware Microsoft

Microsoft HoloLens: The smart person's guide

Isn't the HoloLens just Microsoft's take on VR headsets? Not at all. Find out everything you need to know with our smart person's guide.

Image: Microsoft

Not much has been said about Microsoft's HoloLens despite the launch of the developer edition in March 2016. It's easy to mistake the product for a virtual reality headset when you first hear about it, but it isn't that at all: It's an augmented reality device.

The HoloLens uses specialized optics and holographic processing to render 3D images in space but visible only to the user. The rest of the real world is preserved, allowing the wearer to manipulate the hologram and perform other tasks.

It's not hard to see the business applications of such a device, and Microsoft's current marketing material points to just such an intent.

TechRepublic's smart person's guide about the Microsoft HoloLens is a quick introduction to this "mixed reality" headset, as well as a living guide that will be updated periodically as its platform, hardware, and applications evolve.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic's smart person's guides.

Executive summary

  • What is the Microsoft HoloLens? The HoloLens is a "mixed reality" headset that projects 3D holograms onto the lenses. The wearer can move around the object, manipulate it, and experience it as if it were actually present.
  • Why does the Microsoft HoloLens matter? Augmented reality has been hot in tech for a while--there are even mobile apps that allow you to use your smartphone camera to view 3D images in space just like HoloLens. Microsoft's new device, if it works well, could truly make augmented reality practical.
  • Who does the Microsoft HoloLens affect? The HoloLens has the potential to affect nearly anyone. You could take a video call while walking around the office, study anatomy using 3D objects, play AR games, and do pretty much any 2D task you would normally do in Windows.
  • When is the Microsoft HoloLens happening? The development edition of the HoloLens was released in March 2016. Plans for a consumer release have not yet been announced. Development and practical use of the platform, however, is still well underway.
  • How do I make use of the Microsoft HoloLens for business? There's no end to the ways you can make use of HoloLens for business, but keep in mind that specific software may need to be developed in-house. There are quite a few apps available for the HoloLens, but they may not meet the needs of specific industries or tasks.

SEE: Free ebook--Executive's guide to the business value of VR and AR (TechRepublic)

What is the Microsoft HoloLens?

In the hubbub over the newest wave of virtual reality it's easy to get confused about which products are which. When I first heard about the HoloLens I assumed it was simply Microsoft wanting to get in on the VR craze, but it's actually a completely different, and much more practical, device.

HoloLens uses what Microsoft calls "mixed reality," which is just another term for augmented reality. The HoloLens is a premium AR product capable of displaying 3D images in physical space. The image is only visible to the wearer and is projected onto the glasses using specialized 3D projectors.

Combiner lenses positioned behind the tinted visor focus and display the 3D image. The headset also contains 3D speakers that allow background noise in so that the headset's sound and the real world interact. The speakers are binaural, which means the sound you hear will seem like it's actually coming from the projection.

Hand controls, similar to those used with the Microsoft Kinect, allow the wearer to manipulate the 3D projections as well. And HoloLens will display 2D windows so you can use it with some traditional apps too.

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Tech specs

The Microsoft HoloLens is a unique device that packs some serious power. With its platform still in the development phase it's interesting to think of where it will go from here.

  • Display: Glass visor w/combiner lenses for 3D/2D projection.
  • Projectors: 2 HD 16:9 light engines with automatic pupillary distance calibration.
  • Sensors: 4x environmental cameras, inertial measurement unit (combination accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer), light sensor.
  • Processor: Intel-built 32-bit 1.0GHz Microsoft Holographic Processing Unit (HPU)
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Storage: 64 GB
  • Weight: 1.2 lbs
  • Input: Gesture control
  • Operating system: Windows Mixed Reality (built on Windows 10)
  • Battery life: 2-3 hours continuous use

HoloLens is an independently functioning device, which means you won't need to run applications on a PC in order to load them onto the headset.

Why does the Microsoft HoloLens matter?

AR and VR are both experiencing a surge in popularity, largely thanks to technology finally catching up with our imaginations. That said, AR and VR have mainly made their mark as consumer products despite their potential business applications.

HoloLens is approaching AR from the enterprise angle--it's evident simply from looking at Microsoft's HoloLens website. Search Google for HoloLens and the headlines are primarily about its educational and business uses.

This may be simply due to the fact that a consumer version hasn't come to market yet, but future production will make the HoloLens no less valuable as a tool for architects, doctors, designers, engineers, students, and anyone else whose life could be made easier by 3D models of their work.

Microsoft may have hit on an AR sweet spot that could change the entire way we interact with our work.

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Who does the Microsoft HoloLens affect?

The short answer: Everyone.

To elaborate, the HoloLens has countless potential applications. If Microsoft succeeds at taking the HoloLens from expensive experiment to practical product then it could be the AR revolution we've been waiting for. Yes, the current model is a bit bulky but it still manages to compromise, offering a sleek look without sacrificing functionality.

The development edition of HoloLens is already capable of doing futuristic tasks like helping doctors perform surgery, letting builders see how a finished product will look, projecting a web browser into the air, and giving students the chance to visit places that are otherwise unreachable.

As HoloLens and its ecosystem mature it has the potential to revolutionize how we interact with technology. Whether the price will evolve along with the hardware remains to be seen.

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When is the Microsoft HoloLens happening?

The development edition of the HoloLens was released to American audiences in March 2016 and was opened up to Australia, Ireland, France, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom in November. There is currently no scheduled release date for a consumer edition of HoloLens.

Microsoft has opened development of HoloLens software to anyone who can program Windows applications, which has lead to an influx of HoloLens apps. The number is still limited, and many published apps are more akin to proofs of concept than anything else.

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Competitive products

Microsoft got lucky with the HoloLens and managed to occupy a space that most other companies haven't ventured into. Google tried with Glass but that project died after just a few years.

Lenovo refuses to let Google abandon the Glass game and has created the new Glass 2.0, which it is marketing as a business product. Going B2B with their AR headset puts them on a collision course with the HoloLens, though the two devices do seem designed for different purposes.

The New Glass C200 has a screen over one eye, like the Google Glass, which makes it a much less immersive experience. It may provide information and make accessing data fast and easy but it's not going to replace a full 3D AR experience--it isn't designed to.

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How do I make use of the Microsoft HoloLens for business?

A development model HoloLens is available for $3,000 right now. If your organization wants to make use of the HoloLens you could start right away--with one catch: You'll need developers.

While there are third-party apps available for HoloLens it's doubtful you're going to find the exact product to meet your needs. Specific industries require specific software, so if you want anything custom it's going to have to be built.

Developing for HoloLens requires a lot of software and hardware but that doesn't mean you're going to have to find a new developer to do it: Basic apps can be built in the Windows SDK, and HoloLens is also designed to run most Universal Windows Platform apps.

Keep in mind that 3D isn't the only use for the HoloLens: It can display 2D information as well, which makes it practical for a lot more than just images.

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