Microsoft HoloLens mixes the real and the virtual

The HoloLens headset. Image source: Engadget (linked).

With the announcement of Windows 10 in the live event, Microsoft also recently presented the HoloLens. This is a ‘mixed reality’ headset that overlays ‘holographic’ imagery over your day-to-day vision, allowing you to interact virtually – make Skype calls, build 3D objects in their HoloStudio software, play HoloBuilder (essentially MineCraft), and so on – untethered & without markers/tracking. The specification of it are unclear at this point, described variously as ‘sharp’ and having ‘HD lenses’, and in the presentation it is explained that a traditional CPU/GPU combination were not enough and that the answer was in inventing a ‘HPU’ (‘Holographic Processing Unit’), which deals with the input from various sensors detecting sound, our gestures and ‘spatially map the world around us’ in real-time.

It requires little imagination to visualise how units like this could integrate with archaeological excavation, training, virtual access/reconstruction, etc, in a similar vein to how it has already been employed by NASA. To quote Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington: “OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices [...] It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

Exploring Mars - Microsoft worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory team and the Curiosity Mars rover

Exploring Mars – Microsoft worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team and the Curiosity Mars rover to explore how engineers, geologists, etc could use the technology. Image source: Frame from video (linked).

We’ve all long been aware of the development of consumer VR headsets (e.g. Oculus Rift) – which can immerse us in entirely 3D environments, and Google’s Glass (Prototype production has now ended). HoloLens is an interesting move from Microsoft, and somewhat curiously there is also an absence of reference to ‘augmented reality’ (see Microsoft’s FAQ), which has been suggested may be for marketing purposes. In terms of availability, we are told the HoloLens will be made available within the timeframe of Windows 10. Going forwards it will be a question of which applications befit VR/AR – especially for heritage (and conservation), where virtual access to the present or the past in 2D and 3D form is a central requirement.

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