The Windows 10 event today came to a screeching halt when Alex Kipman announced Microsoft's Next Big Thing: a holographic headset called the HoloLens.
Holograms. Microsoft believes the future is holograms.
(It's not that holographic technology isn't compelling; it's just that everyone else calls it "augmented reality." But okay, fine, Microsoft is bringing back "holograms" as an industry term. Moving on.)
Microsoft is tackling a huge task here, and it appears to be doing so almost entirely on its own (although the company has recruited engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory). The company built a clunky-looking headset called the "HoloLens," which contains not just a CPU and a GPU, but also a third processing unit called a Holographic Processing Unit, or "HPU."
The HoloLens is an untethered, self-contained computer with see-through HD lenses, spatial sound and "advanced sensors." There are no wires and no markers needed, and it does not depend on a mobile phone, nor does it need to be connected to a PC.
From the stage, Microsoft's Alex Kipman said that the HoloLens processes terabytes of data that it pulls from its sensors in real time. The device understands where you're looking, your gestures and your voice.
These holograms are Universal Apps, meaning that there are APIs for them embedded in Windows 10 across all platforms.
Microsoft played some incredibly impressive-looking videos that showed scientists working with the Mars Rover in a virtual environment; people building virtual devices in 3D; getting help on a plumbing repair, complete with animated instructions superimposed on the actual pipes; Skype chatting with a colleague while strolling through the office; watching TV projected onto a wall; and more.
Possibly the most compelling application there was the TV. Ostensibly, HoloLens would enable you to watch shows anywhere you can project a screen. That means you could stream Netflix anywhere you have a fast-enough Internet connection and a flat surface (or keep watching the game when you're in the john), and no one else would be able to see what you're seeing.
For a live demo, Microsoft brought someone on stage and showed how she used HoloLens and powerful accompanying software, HoloStudio, to build a quadcopter. She tapped, gazed, and tapped to control the virtual pieces. She using voice commands such as "glue" to put the pieces together, "mirror" to copy pieces, and "rotate" to move them around to different orientations.
Microsoft had a 3D-printed version of her quadcopter ready to go -- and they actually flew it onstage.
The whole demo was flawless and sincerely jaw-dropping, but I must admit that I'm deeply skeptical of what Microsoft actually has here. The videos were gorgeous, but those scenarios were clearly just renderings. Even the onstage demo was obviously rehearsed, as evidenced by the "we already 3D printed your creation" bit.
We saw at CES that many, many companies are banging on VR/AR technology, and they're making headway. However, even Oculus Rift's hardware and associated demos (which are incredible, by the way) aren't quite ready to come to market. Are we to believe that one Microsoft team has solved all the design, engineering, UI, input, processing and content problems that an entire emerging industry is still struggling with?
I'm bracing for disappointment with the HoloLens. But I would love very much to be proven wrong, because if this technology -- which Microsoft is presenting as a Real Thing that you can buy within months -- is anything close to being as good as billed, Microsoft just rocked the entire tech industry.