Opinion

Why Microsoft’s HoloLens has changed the landscape of virtual reality forever

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In case you missed it, Microsoft unveiled a wearable headset called Windows HoloLens at its recent Windows 10 event in Redmond and it points to a far more exciting future than we were expecting from the company before the keynote kicked off.

After seeing a live tech demo, hearing accounts detailing what the HoloLens experience is like in the flesh and as a result of Microsoft’s official video, the future of more than just computing is at stake here. Holographic technology such as this has the potential to transform every facet of life.

The problem

Until very recently, the virtual reality space hadn’t changed all that much since the concept took form in the first half of the 20th century. I’m not talking about 3D visual effects in movies here, but the immersive VR experience that the likes of ‘The Lawnmower Man’ and ‘Ready Player One’ have alluded to.

Archos VR Headset

Whether through the limitations of hardware and software or a basic lack of interest, VR was in a technological no-man’s land. That was until Oculus VR brought the concept back into our minds with its E3 prototype in 2012 and the subsequent DK2 unit that you can currently lay your hands on.

“That isn’t enough. Not anymore.”

Even in its current, unfinished form, the Rift is an impressive piece of kit, providing the user with a new degree of freedom when exploring a virtual environment or whilst gaming, but that isn’t enough. Not anymore.

HoloLens takes the groundwork laid by the likes of Oculus, Samsung, Archos and Google, but creates a platform that has the potential to do more than just entertain and it does so by hitting a few key points its rivals don’t.

It’s untethered

The DK2 Oculus Rift is one of the closest products in terms of capability and functionality to HoloLens, but one of the biggest differences is that you’re tethered by a physical cable to whatever system you’ve plugged the Rift into. With Microsoft’s solution, all of the display technology, brain-power and battery are built directly into the headset.

The natural position for Oculus has you blinded to the outside world and by necessity, sat in chair or stood on the spot more often than not. Whilst Samsung’s Gear VR can call upon the Note 4’s camera to relay a video feed directly into your eye holes, the nature of the HoloLens display means you can, if you choose to, see an unobstructed view of the world around you and walk around it freely as well, as if you were wearing any conventional pair of specs.

It blends Augmented and Virtual Reality

Jumping off from the previous point, the display tech Microsoft has used means the HoloLens system has the potential to offer two experiences in one: an AR experience, as demoed live on stage and a virtual reality experience a la Oculus Rift and the rest of the VR gang.

The holographic display, paired with whatever sensors Microsoft has packed into that admittedly bulky headset are able to analyse your surroundings and can be used to display content on the window to your right or the table in front of you, for example. What’s to say the system couldn’t simply overlay a completely different environment over the four walls surrounding you, transporting you to a new world or experience entirely.

Those at the event spoke of the Curiosity rover tech demo, which places you on the surface of the red planet itself and lets you look around. At this point, it sounds like the closest thing to Star Trek’s holodeck that we have, and it’s only going to get better.

Greater control

One of the biggest disconnects with the existing VR experience, alongside being rooted to one spot, is being unable to interact with the virtual environment effectively. For the most part a gamepad or peripheral of some sort is required to help with tracking and basic input. The sensor system built into HoloLens undermines the need for such extras entirely.

In its current form, the only defined gesture is the ‘air click’, but that doesn’t account for the natural actions your mind and body want to perform when interacting with VR (or AR for that matter) anyway. Picking up, placing and orientating objects in 3D space are all actions that the HoloLens can already understand, not to mention its capabilities at recognising your immediate surroundings, as well as voice commands.

So what now?

Whilst there’s still a place for the Oculus Rift and its kin, Microsoft has irrevocably changed the path of VR and what sorts of experiences we can expect from the technology. Windows HoloLens is still a ways off, but that just means more time for improvement on an already stellar-looking starting platform.

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Virtual reality alone won’t cut it anymore, augmented experiences will be the next major trend; whether it’s kids playing Minecraft over the coffee table, or medical professionals checking a ultrasound image on an unborn baby in 3D space.

Whilst Oculus was a good start, it takes a company like Microsoft to really get the momentum going and Windows HoloLens has certainly seems to have done that.

This piece was originally posted on Recombu.com (22.1.15)

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