Ciprian Grecea is Tecknoworks' Sys Admin. Also known as 'God', Ciprian is the mother of all gadgets and solver of all tech difficulties.
The HoloLens Augmented Reality headset was first announced by Microsoft at the 2015 developer conference in May, and the company made sure to amaze everybody with a new futuristic concept meant to make interactive holograms a reality.
Well, they managed to do that. I am sure that each individual watching the demo was blown away by the new engaging way of interacting with the virtual objects, and the futuristic approach of collaborating, so let’s begin our journey in the Augmented Reality (AR) proposed by Microsoft.
When first opening the box, I felt like Christmas came earlier this year. I opened the box, put the headset on and after fiddling with the mounting solution for a few minutes, I managed to have the device sit comfortably on my head. The cushioned band is comfortable and the nose piece rests on your nose like a normal pair of sunglasses, but with a bit of added weight (~579 grams, to be exact).
The mounted headset looks a bit like the helmet from RoboCop, so it’s not the type of headset you wear every day in the real world, but we are geeks, so we don’t really care how it looks. Carry on.
On the hardware side of things, the HoloLens has an Intel 32 bit CPU and a custom built Microsoft Holographic Processing Unit which packs a 24 DSP cores, specialized for processing faster the data flow from the real world. Roughly, the HPU is able to perform about 1 trillion calculations per second, being passively cooled, and this achievement is nothing less than impressive. It also holds 2GB of RAM and 64GB of Flash Storage, AC Wireless, built-in stereo speakers, 4 environment understanding cameras, 1 depth camera, a 2-megapixel photo and HD video camera, 4 microphones and 1 ambient light sensor.
On the top left and right sides of the headset, there are hardware buttons for volume and brightness, and on the back there is a 3.5 mm headphone jack (unlike Apple, it does not come with a Lightning connector…), a micro USB connector, battery status LEDs and a power button.
I pressed the power button, and in a few seconds, the device booted and Cortana was waiting for me to start calibrating the HoloLens kit. The calibration is really easy and after a few minutes pointing my index finger to the right location, and logging in with my Microsoft account, I was presented with the Start Menu. To open/close the Start Menu, you need to use the Bloom Gesture, where you need to hold out your hand palm up, with the fingertips together and then open your hand. If using gestures isn’t your thing, you can use voice commands like “Hey Cortana, Go Home” which is pretty self-explanatory.
There is an air cursor that you can use to point in any direction, and you can use the air-tap gesture by raising your index finger in front of the HoloLens and flexing your index finger down. Think of it like using a mouse with the left click. It’s that easy! You can also use gestures like Hold, Manipulation and Navigation.
The Hold Gesture is activated by air tapping and holding the index finger down, which grants you the ability to grab and move objects in Augmented Reality.
The Manipulation Gesture is performed by the Hold Gesture in combination with the movement of your hand in the 3D world. You can resize and rotate a hologram by simply moving your hand.
Navigation allows you to scroll a 2D user interface similar to clicking the middle mouse button then moving the mouse up and down. You can also use this gesture to move object on the X and Y axis with more precision.
The HoloLens kit comes with a “Clicker” which is no more than a glorified wireless remote with a single button, that also has an accelerometer and gyroscope in order to detect movement. This remote is especially useful because it allows the wearer to interact with the Augmented Reality in a more accurate way without the need of gestures.
Having Windows 10 onboard, HoloLens allows you to go on the Windows Store and download apps that enhance the Augmented Reality world. For the moment, the selection is limited, but this will change soon. Even so, I had a great time watching a demo presenting our solar system, playing Jenga with giant virtual pieces and learning anatomy with 3D Holograms.
There are a number of preloaded 3D holograms, and about a dozen are animated, but most of them are there just to help you get familiarised with the gestures and environment. You can get a glimpse of what you can do with them in the following video:
Galaxy Explorer is another demo which let’s you play around with the solar system and listen to information about the universe, and planets from our solar system. Basic functionality and gestures can be watched in the video below:
After scanning the room, in the HoloBlocks app you can start adding geometrical objects and build different constructions. The nice thing about this app is that the blocks abide by the laws of physics and roll on askew or curved surfaces. I never liked playing with blocks when I was a kid, so don’t judge my lack of creativity, but I’m confident that you will understand the basic functionality by watching the following video:
Please note that the quality of the recorded videos in not that great, but this is a limitation of the HoloLens recording. The demos presented by Microsoft look a lot better, but maybe they are using another way of capturing the AR. I noticed that after starting the recording, the frame rate dropped to about half of what I am experiencing while the recording is stopped. The objects look a lot better when actually wearing the HoloLens.
The sound comes from two speakers placed right over your ears, and the sound quality is surprisingly good. Cortana’s voice feels like a real person speaking directly to you in the room.
My biggest complaint for the HoloLens experience is the relatively small field of view. Basically, the wearer is experiencing AR in a rectangle placed in front of his eyes. This “window” towards the AR is not big enough, and it’s not covering the peripheral vision, so you don’t get the complete immersive experience like other VR headsets offer, but interacting with holograms and being able to move around virtual objects is just as fun.
There is also a small rainbow effect on the sides of the visor, amplified by direct light and it can be disturbing sometimes, but if you dim the lights or use the HoloLens in a dim room, this issue is easy to ignore. Maybe we are going to get a new and improved version of HoloLens that fixes these issues in the future.
Unfortunately, the fun stops after about two or three hours of active use, so the battery is not a strong suit for the headset but keeping in mind that you are basically wearing a computer with a whole array of sensors on your head with no wires to restrict your movement, the low battery life does not seem such a big deal. The battery takes about the same amount of time to charge and get back to action.
Microsoft started accepting orders for the HoloLens Developer Kit in August 2016, for all developers and business customers willing to shell out 3000$ of their hard earned cash.