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Microsoft HoloLens: What Our Desire For Hyper-Reality Reveals About Us


Eugene Gan - published on 02/08/15

Viewing the world through holographic glasses

Along with their announcement of Windows 10, Microsoft just unveiled their latest gizmo: augmented reality goggles that superimpose 3D objects on your physical environment. They call it the HoloLens (even though technically, the objects it creates aren’t holograms at all) and it’s possible you could be wearing one by the end of this year. Enthralled? You’re not alone. The trailer for their has already garnered more than 12.8 million views. The trailer’s voice over seems to echo a universal desire: “What if we could go further? What if we could go beyond the screen?” Of course, the whole commercial is made to suggest how smooth, convenient, and easy your life could be if you had a HoloLens. Would it? With the increasing competition for the limited real estate that is your face, do we really need more wearables? After all, even Google Glass announced that they’re going to close down the consumer end of that business. But the HoloLens is poised to be uniquely different and appears to enable you to do some pretty cool Tony Stark stuff.

For starters, it’s more integrated into our environment than Oculus Rift, and because it’s in the Windows 10 family and comes with a Microsoft Holo Studio application that allows you to create, share, and print all sorts of 3D objects, it already promises more applications than Google Glass. There’s no lag and it reacts to head movements naturally, alleviating any dizziness normally associated with virtual reality goggles. It does its magic by bouncing light between three glass layers to trick your brain into seeing virtual objects in your environment. That in and of itself is impressive because 3D objects do not by default recognize the dimensional contours of your environment. What Microsoft is suggesting is that its HoloLens’ three data processors map your 3D environment in real time – especially if you’re moving from place to place within your environment and so changing the apparent contours around you – so as to superimpose its own virtual objects within your space. Plus it’s untethered, which makes it doubly impressive imagining the portable processing power you’re wearing and carrying around with you. This kind of technology cannot work without the faster data processors we have today. Microsoft calls the processor that primarily handles this kind of information a holographic processor unit (HPU), as opposed to the central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processor unit (GPU) already residing within modern computers. They’re understandably guarded about this technology, so how their HPU can map your environment accurately in all settings and lighting conditions is beyond me: I can’t envision consistent accuracy for everyone everywhere. For example, low light, deep shadows, hot spots created by intense light, or stained glass window images cast on objects in a room can throw an image processor for a loop in the same way your camera has trouble taking tonally balanced pictures under extreme light or dark conditions.

Microsoft’s trailer also shows the HoloLens projecting Minecraft constructs onto your living room floor and furniture. You can also use hand gestures to manipulate these virtual objects. Microsoft calls it “air-tapping." Granted, it’s all part of a prepared video and not an actual live demo, but the idea is tantalizing nevertheless, even though it begs the question: how is this experience different from my kids and I building Lego cities around the living room? Ok, so we won’t have to dismantle the whole thing when we’re done, or have little bricks lying around for you to step on, but the point remains: it’s still Lego. Plus, while it’s good for casual video games, I doubt video game players who are immersing themselves in “hardcore” worlds are going to jump on this bandwagon. The need for immersion within a totally different world precludes the blended environment of the HoloLens. For example, I can’t envision a virtual flight simulator as a good application for the HoloLens because my down-to-earth living room furniture blended with the virtual environment at 15,000 feet altitude doesn’t an immersive flight experience make. As for beaming Netflix on your walls, depending on how much Microsoft intends to sell the HoloLens for, it would either save us the cost of purchasing large screen TV’s or simply devolve into a glorified Netflix viewer.

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