While the Oculus Rift has garnered a lot of attention in the press, Microsoft's HoloLens appears to be shaping up to be a very interesting take on virtual reality headsets.
The HoloLens was the surprise announcement at the Windows 10 launch earlier in the year with members of the press taken to the firm’s Building 92 for a demonstration of the headset and some hands-on time with it.
12/10/2016: Microsoft's HoloLens AR headset is now available to pre-order for UK developers. The headsets cost £2,719, and will begin shipping to customers in late November.
The device still isn't ready for a consumer release though - the only units available in the UK are developer kits, intended for the first wave of early adopters. Customers are currently limited to purchasing a maximum of five units.
However, while the headsets haven't been officially launched, Microsoft is still offering an enterprise-level 'commercial suite' package for businesses that want to deploy HoloLens, including an extended feature-set and warranty. This package is slightly pricier, coming in at £4,529 with bulk orders welcome.
03/08/2016: Want a HoloLens? It's all yours - if you've got $3,000 (£2,250) and live in North America.
After limiting sales to developers, Microsoft has opened up availability to anyone willing to shell out for the VR headset in the US or Canada.
In a blog post, Microsoft said the devices are being made available to "all developer and business customers".
The company applications are not required, so anyone can pick one up, as long as they have a Microsoft account, although there's a five device limit per person. Head to HoloLens.com to place your order.
Microsoft also unveiled a Commercial Suite for the headset, to help companies trial the hardware. It includes added security and device management features, and "kiosk mode", which lets companies limit the apps which run, handy for demos or showcases.
22/07/2016: Independent development teams are working on bringing mobile gaming phenomenon Pokémon Go to Microsoft’s augmented reality headset, which could give it a huge boost as a gaming device.
Videos have been appearing on video sharing sites and social media of custom-made Pokémon Go prototypes for HoloLens.
Developer David Robustelli, co-founder and head of digital at CapitolaVR, and his team put together a test of a playable version of the game on HoloLens, which has been viewed more than 185,000 times on YouTube.
Robustelli has also recorded a video of him playing his demo in the streets of Amsterdam.
The difference with CapitolaVR’s own demo is that it appears to be playable using the just the headset and physical gestures.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently comment on the AR craze for the game, and how it could be applied to HoloLens, during an interview with CNBC: "This Pokémon interest hopefully will translate into a lot of interest in HoloLens. Think about it: the game physics of that app are built for HoloLens. Of course the phone is great, the installed base of the phone is so enormous that it makes it possible.
"But think about what that game on HoloLens would mean. You’re not trying to use a phone when you can actually use your eyes to look through. It’s the ultimate computing paradigm and I am happy for Pokémon, but I am happy for these industrial applications.”
11/07/2016: Microsoft has announced Japan Airlines is using HoloLens to improve the training experience of the airline's flight crews and mechanics.
Using holographic computing, the programme can project holograms into the environment, such as cockpit instruments and elements of the aircraft's engine.
It demonstrates how the parts fit together, so flight crew and mechanics can use it to understand how the aeroplane works in a much safer way than taking apart a real machine.
They are able to make parts bigger or smaller to find specific parts in the engine, plus they can move the parts around in the space in front of them to see it from all angles – as if they were walking around it.
"HoloLens is the first fully untethered holographic computer, completely self-contained and powered by Windows 10," Gavriella Schuster, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group said. "It uses mixed reality, blending 3-D holographic content into the physical world allowing users to interact with both digital content and the world around them."
This is just one example of how HoloLens enables new possibilities, Schuster continued in all types of services that not only offer improved experiences, but better safety too.
06/07/2016: Microsoft is shipping its fifth wave of HoloLens development kit pre-orders now.
This fifth round of Development Edition dispatches comes just two weeks after the fourth wave.
Microsoft appears to be ahead of schedule, as it initially said pre-orders may ship two to three months apart. It has since updated its shipping information to say that pre-orders should be dispatched over a period of approximately one month.
With Microsoft ramping up production on the augmented reality (AR) headset, the company may be preparing for a general release of the hardware in the not too distant future.
The company is also thought to be working on a new AR hardware that may be powered by its Windows Holographic system.
In the video below, Microsoft HoloLens team leaders Alex Kipman and Kudo Tsunoda introduce the hardware.
08/06/2016: Microsoft has tuned its Outlook email and calendar apps for HoloLens, letting users see their inbox and schedule as a humongous, wall-sized holographic display.
Using the Outlook Mail on HoloLens, Microsoft said users will be able to browse emails as well as see what tasks and meetings they having coming up next. All of this while simultaneously interacting with other digital content, such as a virtual desk model made in Minecraft.
To get Outlook Mail and Calendar apps on HoloLens, open the Windows Store on HoloLens, search for Outlook Mail and Calendar. Click ‘Free’, and follow the steps for installation.
The HoloLens team are keen to receive feedback from developers and early adopters. Feedback can be submitted here.
02/06/2016: Windows Holographic, the operating system powering Microsoft's HoloLens headset, will be open to OEMs and other devices, the company has announced.
Windows Holographic is part of the OneCore Windows 10 platform, and offers a holographic shell and interaction model, including gesture and voice commands as well as "perception APIs and Xbox Live services".
As part of an announcement at Taiwan's Computex exhibition, Microsoft announced that this software will be coming to "devices of all shapes and sizes".
This includes augmented reality and mixed reality devices like the HoloLens, as well as fully immersive VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
This means that rather than simply being gaming peripherals, these headsets could soon run on a dedicated cross-device platform. This is significant, as Windows Holographic uses the Universal Windows App protocol.
Any holographic app is a UWA - meaning it can run on any Windows device - and similarly, all UWAs can be adapted to run on Windows Holographic.
Microsoft claims that there are hundreds of pre-existing apps that can already be run on Windows Holographic, thereby eliminating the ecosystem problems that plagued Windows Phone.
"We are excited to be working with Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, MSI and many others supporting great virtual reality experiences on Windows 10," the company said in a blog post, "and we are looking forward to opening up Windows Holographic to the partner ecosystem for the future."
25/05/2016: NASA and Microsoft have collaborated to recreate the experience of walking on Mars, using HoloLens and the organisation’s vast planetary database.
NASA used HoloLens to create a virtual tour of the red planet called ‘Destination: Mars’, opens this summer, and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin will serve as a holographic tour guide on the route. Curiosity Mars rover driver Erisa Hines will also appear as a hologram to describe discoveries made by NASA scientists.
Curiosity Mars rover driver Erisa Hines in the HoloLens-powered Destination: Mars (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Microsoft)
The tour is an adaptation of OnSight, a Mars rover mission operations tool, developed jointly by Microsoft and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A pilot group of scientists use OnSight in their work supporting the Curiosity Mars rover's operations.
This experience, which NASA and Microsoft are referring to as ‘mixed reality', is being billed as changing the experience of visiting an exhibit, because visitors will be able to interact with artefacts and objects on the tour.
"The goal is to enable scientists to explore Mars just like they would explore a site here on Earth," Alex Menzies, lead developer of the project, told Popular Science.
Expect more news when the tour opens. Till then, take a look at a video preview below.
13/05/2016: Microsoft is eying the potential for its augmented reality (AR) headset to be used for military applications.
The technology company detailed, on its official enterprise blog, a vision of the future where military staff, from aircraft mechanics to battlefield tacticians, will use its HoloLens headset to enhance their view of real-world objects and events.
“HoloLens embraces mixed reality to enable users to engage with the physical world and interact with real people as they simultaneously explore 3D digital content,” wrote Sergio Ortega Cruz, Microsoft’s worldwide industry solution manager for public safety, national security and defense. “For military users, the benefits are enormous. By incorporating HoloLens into their everyday operations, defence organisations can operate far more efficiently while dramatically reducing costs.”
Examples Ortega Cruz gave included overlaying a 3D model – over the top of a grounded aircraft – showing a mechanic precisely what parts of the craft need to be taken part, replaced or recalibrated.
HoloLens may also be used to design and assemble military vehicles and equipment. Ortega Cruz said Microsoft’s AR headset would allow workers to save time, instruct one another with greater accuracy, and improve assembly efficiency.
Finally, Ortega Cruz suggested that HoloLens could help leaders, in a command and control centre, to better strategize and “keep their soldiers safer” during combat operations.
The blog post in question, published on Monday, has since been removed from the site for reasons Microsoft has not specified. However, it is still visible via web cache.
Microsoft already provides some specific enterprise software and technology to the defence and law enforcement bodies around the world, such as its Aware suite. The company said it is committed to supporting defence organisations with innovative applications for its HoloLens technology.
The HoloLens begins shipping to developers and Microsoft's enterprise partners today, Redmond confirmed at Build 2016.
Speaking at the San Francisco conference, HoloLens evangelist Alex Kipman told the audience that developer kits of Microsoft's VR headset will ship today, and offered a couple of use cases for the enterprise too.
One from NASA showed Buzz Aldrin taking people on a tour of Mars, and another from Case Western University's Dr Pamela Davis, showed how HoloLens can help teach students medicine by providing three-dimensional displays.
She claimed students learned more from the three-dimensional augmented reality of HoloLens than from dozens of hours of studying, while the VR device allowed people from other countries to join in the lesson (seen as the red figure in the demo picture above).
30/03/2016: The HoloLens headset may have an overheating issue, according to game developer David Dedeine.
In an interview with PC World, Dedeine said that the HoloLens goggles contain a processor that heats up during use, to the extent where the headset becocmes too hot to touch with bare skin and thus dangerous to wear for long periods.
For safety reasons, however, it will shut down automatically once it reaches a certain temperature.
"The most important thing is to really be economical... you would never need to do this with a console or PC - it's all about consumption of energy, battery savings," Dedeine said. "Even more important, it's heat - to not make the whole thing get too hot, as it would be uncomfortable to the user."
This issue is presumably due to the fact that, unlike rival augmented reality devices such as Oculus Rift, the HoloLens has its own processor and so does not require a PC to work.
03/03/2016: HoloLens developers will be able to use emulator software to create apps, Microsoft has revealed.
This will be good news for those who can’t afford the HoloLens developer kit, which was recently made available for pre-order at a whopping $3,000. Instead, the emulator will digitally mimic a user wearing a HoloLens headset, which developers can use to test how their applications would work.
Although it uses a screen to simulate a user’s point-of-view, and a keyboard and mouse or Xbox controller to control their movements, the company has stated that “apps don't need to be modified to run on the emulator and don't know that they aren't running on a real HoloLens”.
The software comes pre-loaded with five simulated rooms that devs can test their apps in, including two bedrooms, two living rooms and an open-plan ‘greatroom’. Users can also scan in their own rooms to use in the emulator if they choose.
The emulator runs in its own specific Hyper-V VM and requires Visual Studio 2015 to run. Microsoft also recommends that developers have a working knowledge of the Unity engine.
The first development editions of Microsoft’s augmented reality headsets are due to start rolling out to pre-order customers in the US and Canada on 30 march. The device is rumoured to eventually be bundled with a number of games and apps, including one starring Rare’s foul-mouthed mascot Conker.
18/01/2016: Microsoft has revealed its HoloLens virtual reality headset will only work for five and a half hours with light use or a rather paltry two and a half hours for intensive users.
The company's Bruce Harris announced the headset's battery life at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel, as well as revealing it will run on Windows 10 (or at least trial versions will) and is totally wireless, using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for communication.
This means anything that has Bluetooth or Wi-Fi can work with the headset, whether that's a drone, a smartphone, tablet, laptop, speakers, or anything else.
The vision seen through HoloLens is comparable to having a 15-inch screen two feet in front of the face. Harris said the reason Microsoft chose to have a virtual screen this size was to preserve battery life and drive down costs.
Harris also spoke about HoloLens' device link, which enables the user to hook up two devices together to share an experience, allowing multiple users to see the same thing in exactly the same way at the same time.
This sharing can happen over the internet rather than in the same room, making it useful for applications such as product development where two people may need to view an object at the same time, despite being on opposite sides of the world.
02/12/2015: Microsoft devs have shown HoloLens streaming Halo 5: Guardians from an Xbox One.
As part of the forthcoming device’s promotion, the company’s head honchos have allowed the select employees that have received HoloLens development kits to share some of their creations.
Most of the short videos, released under the #MadeWithHoloLens hashtag, have been somewhat uninspiring affairs.
HoloLens program manager Varun Mani, however, has released a video showing the latest Halo title streaming to the device via Windows 10’s inbuilt Xbox One streaming capability.
Unlike the Oculus Rift or the other HoloLens gaming applications shown off by Microsoft, the game was simply running as a standard virtual window rather than true AR or VR.
Leveraging the HoloLens device for this type of application is something that Xbox head Phil Spencer has talked about previously, so it’s no surprise to see that the company’s working on it.
Nevertheless, gamers will be gratified to know that HoloLens is already compatible with the Xbox One, even at this early stage.
06/10/2015: Microsoft has announced that it will launch a developer's version of its HoloLens VR headset. The announcement was made during a press conference in New York.
It will cost $3000 and should ship in the first quarter of 2016. This version of the headset will be called "HoloLens Development Edition" and developers can sign up online to buy a headset. Developers can order a maximum of two units, must live in the US or Canada and be part of the Windows Insider program.
Terry Myerson, Microsoft's windows and devices group vice president said the HoloLens was "packed with space-age technology" and sported high definition lenses, spatially-aware sound, movement sensors and custom-built silicon.
Microsoft also showed off a new game it was working on called Project X-Ray. The game maps out a room and then superimposes robots breaking through walls while the player tries to shoot the with a gun superimposed on the player's arm.
The headset will be fully untethered and requires no phone, PC or wires to work.
28/09/2015: Microsoft has built a cardboard VR device that appears to take a leaf out of Google’s book, while it waits to drop its augmented reality HoloLens headset on the market.
With the device's main material being card, Redmond could release the designs to compete with Google Cardboard, and any developers who come up with successful ideas at the hackathon in October will get a VR Kit to work further on their application, which could be in the field of games, education or enterprise, Thurrott reported.
VR Kit might give fans something to salivate over while they wait for the initial release of HoloLens, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said could appear as a developer-only version by July 2016.
01/09/2015: Apple has poached a HoloLens engineer, supposedly for its own augmented reality (AR) project, according to an analyst.
Former Microsoft employee Nick Thompson first started working for Apple in July, but news of his departure went online yesterday via StreetInsider.com, quoting Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.
"Based on recent acquisitions of augmented reality companies, hiring of a key Microsoft Hololens employee, and conversations with industry contacts within the virtual and augmented reality spaces, we believe Apple has a team exploring the AR space," he wrote in a note to subscribers.
24/08/2015: Microsoft has revealed the first app with official support for its forthcoming HoloLens headset.
Unfortunately, the app itself is a fairly boring one called ‘Microsoft IT Showcase’, which is essentially pre-packaged Microsoft advertising.
What is interesting is the screenshots section, which shows what the app looks like on various devices.
Along with the standard phone and PC tabs, there’s a Surface Hub tab and a section for HoloLens screenshots.
However, the screenshots don’t appear to differ in any significant way from those shown in the PC or Surface Hub tabs.
While it’s difficult to adequately represent the visuals from any head-mounted display on traditional screens, it’s also possible that these images were put up by mistake.
It is also somewhat odd that Microsoft would choose an uninspiring advertising app as the first app to officially support HoloLens – a popular flagship app like Word or Microsoft Edge would appear to be the logical choice.
This is the first time that any Microsoft product has directly announced compatibility with HoloLens, and may indicate that Microsoft is coming closer to revealing more details about the device.
Microsoft is staging an event at this year’s IFA trade show in Berlin, and while it’s set to revolve mainly around Windows 10 on third-party machines, there’s also a slim chance that the company could slip some news about HoloLens in as an Apple-esque ‘one more thing’.
03/08/2015: Consumers wanting to get their hands on Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset may face a wait of up to five years, it has emerged.
Speaking to BBC Click, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made it clear that consumer applications for the HoloLens technology are currently low on the company’s list of priorities.
“This is a five-year journey”, he said, highlighting the fact that the first version of the device will be “more around developers and enterprises”, though he went on to say that “it’s in the Windows 10 timeframe, which means that it is within the next year”.
However, while Nadella specifically mentioned exploring “commercial use-cases”, he made no allusions towards consumer applications like the Minecraft demo from earlier in the year.
This implies that unlike Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift – which are aiming for releases in the first half of 2016 – the retail model of HoloLens will most likely be in development for another few years yet.
10/07/2015: Microsoft may have inadvertently revealed one of HoloLens’ biggest stumbling-blocks, in the form of its limited field of view.
As part of the device’s promotional campaign, Microsoft has been highlighting many of HoloLens’ more diverse use-cases, one of which is education.
The tech giant teamed up with Case Western Reserve University to produce a promotional video showcasing how the device can be used to teach students about human anatomy.
However, the video includes several shots filmed from the point of view of a HoloLens user, which give us the first indications about what we can expect from the headset’s display.
Immediately noticeable is the fact that HoloLens’ field of vision appears to be rather small and constrained.
Rather than spanning the wearer’s entire field of view, the area of their vision overlaid with digital content and information is actually a small rectangular area in the center.
Due to the slightly tricky nature of perspective, it’s difficult to say how big or small this will actually appear, relative to the user, as well as how much of an impact it will have on the final HoloLens experience.
But it appears there will not be a full edge-to-edge display, and a square border cutting off bits of users’ augmented reality environments could impact games and movies.
On the other hand, this is almost certainly the first thing that will improve with subsequent iterations of HoloLens technology, should it prove initially successful.
Microsoft is keeping the development and release schedule for the HoloLens deliberately murky, so it's difficult to say for certain when it's going to be released. However, as with any release, there have been various clues.
In an interview with BBC Click, CEO Satya Nadella has said that the road to HoloLens will be a "five year journey", and indicated that the company was prioritising delivering the device to developers and enterprise customers before releasing it to 'Joe Public'.
He also mentioned that initial developer versions will be released within a year of the Windows 10 launch, implying that we're likely to see some form of HoloLens by July 2016 at the latest.
When the HoloLens goes on sale, it won’t be cheap. According to this New York Times article, the HoloLens will cost “significantly more than a game console, which runs more than $400”. When the question of cost was brought up on Quora, the price ranged from around $500 to $1,500.
Microsoft is positioning HoloLens as a primarily business-focused device, so we wouldn't be surprised if we say prices occupying the same broad range as its Surface Pro 3 line. We'd estimate a starting pricetag of between £800-£1000.
The HoloLens is one of the first VR headsets to combine reality with its virtual counterpart, creating what's called an augmented reality - layering computer-generated images on top of the real world.
At its initial unveiling, Microsoft was keen to show off the sleek design and build quality of its headset. Featuring a set of twin lenses and an all-in one-headband, it looked fairly impressive. In fact, it's oddly reminiscent of the aliens' headgear from the original V miniseries.
Those that were privy to the behind-closed-doors hands-on, however, tell a different story. In IT Pro's experience, HoloLens was less fancy space-goggles, and more akin to "a bicycle helmet that’s had most of its frame removed, with two large lenses in front of [the] eyes, and a sensor array over [the] forehead".
There are two rings almost encompasses in the head. The outer ring contains all the hardware that runs the device, while the inner ring is adjustable to the wearer’s head.
HoloLens will be powered by three processors, the CPU, GPU and HPU. The most notable of these is the Holographic Processing Unit, which will handle all the data coming in from sensors on the device, which in turn will make sense of the world around it.
"The advanced sensors in HoloLens capture information about what you’re doing and the environment you’re in," Todd Holmdahl explained on the Lumia Conversations blog.
"This is done through the inertial measurement unit (IMU) which includes an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. It’s this IMU, coupled with head tracking cameras, which enables HoloLens to understand where your head is and how it’s moving."
It is also likely to have a full HD camera mounted on the headset to track movement of the user within their environment, almost certainly derived from the Kinect camera technology previously seen on the Xbox One.
This leaves the CPU and GPU to run the apps and operating system. These processors look set to be based on Intel’s Cherry Trail line of processors. With Intel set to bring wireless charging features to Cherry Trail, the HoloLens could also be charged wirelessly if placed on a suitable surface.
Cherry Trail chips will crunch through large amounts of data, such as what is being looked at, what the user is doing with their arms (reaching for something, touching a surface) as well as what is in the user's surroundings. This is stuff we take for granted as humans, but takes considerable computation power to pull off for the headset.
The operating system on HoloLens itself will be Windows 10 as Microsoft has committed itself to having apps that run across all platforms. In theory the same app could run across your desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, Xbox and HoloLens.
The reality is much more likely to be specialist apps running on the HoloLens. Microsoft has already made lots of noise about its 3D design and prototyping software Holo Studio, which allows users to manipulate projects in three dimensions, and more will probably follow.
Developers will have access to Windows 10 APIs to incorporate gesture controls and eye tracking into apps running on HoloLens. Developers won’t have direct access to sensors. The reason Microsoft gave for this was that this would lead to an inconsistent experience for users.
The HoloLens is pretty much a self-contained computer, however, as far as we know, in order to upload apps, it has to be hooked up to a PC via a micro USB cable.
The HoloLens team is said to be working with Xbox to produce games for the device. Xbox lead Phil Spencer told delegates at the Game Developers Conference in March that his team would be developing games for the device. Again, this appears to be part of the strategy of having a universal app platform for Microsoft.
Spencer said in an interview with Re/Code that he felt gaming with a Hololens would be more for general users rather than devoted gamers, and isn’t modelled as a gaming device the way devices like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are.
However, Microsoft has shown off demos of smash-hit Minecraft running on HoloLens, and the prospect of having a Minecraft world laid out across your living room has been getting fans very excited indeed.
While it is too early to say what the finished product will be like (as no one outside Microsoft has tried this out), IT Pro has tried out a prototype. Author of this article, Simon Bisson, said his demo headset was far from the sleek units shown off in the Windows 10 keynote and more like a cycling helmet with a couple of lenses and a computer hanging off it.
Despite that, some of the demos Bisson experienced were “magical” (especially the Walking on Mars one) and added that Microsoft’s holographic word was “a place I want to explore in depth”.
This article has been updated multiple times. The most recent update was made on 02/06/2016.