REDMOND, Wash. -- In the bowels of Building 92, hidden underneath the company's public visitor center in a secret series of labs, Microsoft let a few people try out what may be the most ambitious Windows device ever made: a holographic headset that aims to rival the most advanced virtual reality devices out there.
Microsoft's HoloLens is expected to run Windows 10 and apps -- holographic ones that will float in front of your line of vision and apps that can be run on phones, tablets, PCs and the Xbox One game console. With the holographic programs, Microsoft is trying to transform how we think about computing, productivity and communication. Just as VR rivals Oculus (owned by Facebook) and Google are trying to reimagine virtual experiences with their head-worn devices, Microsoft wants us to imagine a world without screens, where information merely floats in front of you.
"We're not talking about putting you into virtual worlds," HoloLens leader Alex Kipman said Wednesday during an event at Microsoft's headquarters here. "We're dreaming beyond virtual worlds, beyond screens, beyond pixels."
Kipman started working at Microsoft seven years ago, when he pitched the idea for the Kinect motion camera, a video game device that tracked a player's body movements. The Kinect went on to become one of the fastest-selling devices in history.
For the last five years, Kipman has been focused on taking the innovations inside the Kinect -- cheap and powerful motion-sensing cameras, voice control -- and packing them into a pair of transparent goggles.
Microsoft appears far along in realizing this augmented reality vision. With HoloLens today, the company has designed a convincing prototype that floats 3D images in front of you and that can change the look of real-world objects all around. But it's unclear how Microsoft expects to deliver on CEO Satya Nadella's commitment that such a device will be for both consumers and businesses.
Also unsaid: How much it will cost. Microsoft said it expects to release a finished HoloLens within the same time frame as Windows 10, which should arrive sometime this year. The Oculus Rift's various developer kits, on the other hand, have cost upward of $300 in the past, with its consumer model expected to come in between $200 and $400. Samsung's Gear VR headset runs around $350.
Microsoft's glasses are different from Oculus Rift goggles, which promise to transport you to a different world and open up numerous possibilities for film, TV, sports and other entertainment. HoloLens uses a technology called augmented reality, which overlays images onto real life and lets you interact with them. In theory, this is easy, but the biggest struggles competitors have had so far have been to design a headset that can stand alone, untethered from a computer or power source, and travel into various environments. Overcoming those challenges is necessary before mainstream consumers will buy into such a bold vision for next-generation computing.
From Mars to Minecraft
As we're led down the stairs into the basement, we're told that we can't try the more polished, all-in-one prototype Microsoft just showed onstage. Instead, we'll be using an earlier, uglier prototype. The company doesn't allow smartphones or cameras into the room.
The device's holographic processing unit, the special processor Microsoft designed to basically help the HoloLens interpret movement and sound, is cased in a separate, chunky box intended to be worn around your neck. The glasses aren't the sleek, space gray model Microsoft unveiled this morning, but a mass of metal. A long chord tethers me to a pair of PCs that are helping feed the goggles their images.
Wearing the device is not quite as comfortable as wearing the latest Oculus Rift prototype or Samsung's Gear VR headset. And the image I begin to see onscreen when I strap the lenses over my eyes isn't that much sharper than those offered up by the competing devices.
Rather, the biggest departure -- and where Microsoft is truly differentiating its HoloLens -- is how the image I see allows me to interact with my environment instead of escape from it.
The first demo, created in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, takes me to the surface of a near-photorealistic Mars. Using real photography from the Curiosity rover, Microsoft was able to re-create a Martian landscape and overlay a 3D-map around a small, conference-room-size environment. I can walk around, bend down and look at rocks. I can even see NASA's Curiosity rover, which is larger than a standard motor vehicle.
With HoloLens, I'm not just able to see what it's like to walk around on Mars, but I'm also able to interact with the contents on the surface. Using a finger gesture called Air Tap, the HoloLens lets me mark certain spots on the surface for investigation and even lets me talk with another floating figure and collaborate on examining the surface. NASA hopes to get the HoloLens up and running as a day-to-day tool at JPL by the summer, allowing researchers for the first time to visualize and map out exactly where Curiosity will drill, traverse and photograph the surface of the planet.
Like the Oculus Rift, Microsoft is also pushing the HoloLens as an entirely new way to experience video games. After purchasing Minecraft creator Mojang in September for $2.5 billion, Microsoft now owns the popular pixel building game and decided to create its own holographic demo based on the game's artistic style. The demo turns an entire room into a lively game world, punching holes into tables and through the walls to reveal interactive environments that can be changed with the tap of a finger.
Perhaps the most stunning demo, however, was the most practical: Skype's videoconferencing software. Microsoft had us repair a light switch by video chatting with someone using a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet. Their face bobbed in front of my line of vision while I received instructions. To help us maneuver around the various tools, the Microsoft employee was able to draw on our line of sight in real time, using arrows and rudimentary diagrams to describe the best way to position electronics and how to piece everything together.
Check out what the Microsoft HoloLens can do (pictures)See all photos
The demo was unique in that it showcased a feasible and realistic use of augmented reality that wasn't bombastic or meant to marvel. I was able to do something I can say I haven't done in quite a long time with help from a total stranger who was seeing through my eyes and drawing on my reality to direct me through a task.
After checking the voltage on the wires, wrapping coils around the respective screws and capping the loose wires, I picked up a remote control and tapped a button. The light came to life. I had only to look up so the person on the other end of my eyes could see the end result of our successful collaboration.