Microsoft jumps into augmented reality with HoloLens, Windows 10

Microsoft revealed a suite of augmented reality (AR) software called Windows Holographic that works on any device, including a new AR headset, running Windows 10.

Unlike virtual reality, which surrounds the user with a completely virtual world, augmented reality places the virtual over the physical. Microsoft’s presentation featured people using the HoloLens headset to throw a Skype screen up on the wall, lay repair directions over a broken pipe and even build Minecraft buildings on their living room floor. A live demo featured a program for sculpting 3D printable models. The same applications will be available on laptops, phones and tablets, though they will not have the same immersive feel as the glasses.

Minecraft in HoloLens.

Minecraft in HoloLens.

“Imagine turning your living room into a surreal gaming environment. You might think this is crazy,” Kinect lead Alex Kipman said. “In software, nothing is impossible, and holograms can become part of our everyday life.”

The final form of the HoloLens headset — tinted, transparent glasses that resemble your grandpa’s hippest oversized shades — looks impressive compared to the competition. It will be untethered, which means it can be used anywhere without the need for a battery pack in your pocket or an actual plug. It incorporates 3D audio that adapts as you turn your head for more immersive sound.

The HoloLens headset is wireless.

The HoloLens headset is wireless.

Windows Holographic also operates without markers. Many of the augmented reality glasses on or coming to the market require special QR codes or other patterns to recognize a physical surface and stick a virtual object to it. It’s a limiting feature, but gets around the huge amount of computing that goes into seeing and recognizing the real world. Microsoft is avoiding both markers and an external battery pack, and doing it all with sensors and no cameras. Interesting.

HoloLens uses voice and gesture control.

HoloLens uses voice and gesture control.

Microsoft is incorporating some other tricky features into HoloLens, including voice and gesture control. No one has gotten gesture control exactly right thus far for virtual or augmented reality, and that has caused a lot of frustration. Many companies have been going the safer route with joysticks and touchpads. But there’s no doubt that there are applications dying for gesture control.

Gesture control demands a re-imagining of how we interact with our devices, but AR and VR companies have been shy about moving away from familiar menus, with small app icons and the need to flip between screens. Microsoft still asks you to do that in HoloLens. But it looks like the combination of voice and touch controls have been nicely thought out. In an on-stage sculpting demo, voice commands could be used to quickly copy a piece or combine them. A pinching gesture that resembled pressing down on a mouse acted as a click.

The makers of the existing augmented reality headsets should be very, very worried right now. Now the question is when will Magic Leap release its headset, and is it Microsoft that should be worried?

This article was updated on January 22 to reflect my colleague Kif Leswing’s experiences during a HoloLens demo.

Epson BT-200 review: augmented reality is getting … somewhere

A small robot floated in my vision and asked a simple question: Where would I like to go?

His name was Sparky, and he was developed especially for the Epson Moverio BT-200 augmented reality glasses I was wearing by a team of students at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. He quickly provided me details about a coffee shop down the block. If I’d stood up, he could have led me all the way there with turn-by-turn directions.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-GnFPLLDF4&w=560&h=315]

It’s a futuristic version of augmented reality, one where your headset interacts with the real world as it changes around you and (supposedly) improves your productivity and well-being through information and companionship. Researchers are certainly working toward that goal. But, for today, we have the BT-200s.

They are are the subtlest, most polished AR option yet, but they still look straight out of a bad 1980s movie. If you think Google Glass makes people look like a dork, keep away from augmented reality.

The entire industry is in a sort of stepping-stone phase right now. It’s evident in every piece of the BT-200s’ design, from its handheld trackpad to its icon- and cursor-based menu. It feels very familiar, but at the expense of totally diving into the future of augmented reality.

Epson's BT-200 smart glasses and their handheld controller.

Epson’s BT-200 smart glasses and their handheld controller.

Like most of the rest of the augmented reality industry, Epson is focused on the enterprise. The BT-200 was designed for people who need to call up information in the field; places where a laptop or tablet would be too cumbersome or fragile to take along.

The glasses feel relatively light and comfortable. Without any kind of fine tuning for my vision, I quickly felt my eyes grow strained each time I wore them.

No one can provide true augmented reality at the moment, which would be capable of placing virtual images anywhere in your field of view. Instead, Epson hovers a rectangular screen over your vision. From 10 feet away, it was almost exactly the same size as my 42-inch television.

Booting up the glasses brings you to a menu filled with icons. You drag your finger over the handheld trackpad to move a cursor, and a tap generates a click. The trackpad was responsive, and I didn’t have any problem scrolling and clicking. I actually preferred it to the less-than-mature hand tracking other augmented reality companies are using.

Current apps range from virtual reality games where you shoot robots to guides for putting together Legos. A big test in the augmented reality world right now is the lag in an image. If a virtual version of a clock I am fixing is plastered over the real clock, does it stay in place on top of the real clock when I quickly move my head? Epson’s glasses had a slight lag before the virtual image popped back into place.

Augmented reality is not ready for consumers yet. But for enterprise and industrial applications, the BT-200 is a solid choice. Its screen looks nice, it pulls up information in a timely manner and in your free time you have your pick of killer robot games.

Magic Leap hires famed sci-fi writer to foretell the future

We don’t yet have an established conception of virtual and augmented reality. Startups and corporations alike are making up its form and culture as they go, and they are hiring famous visionaries to illuminate the way.

Magic Leap, a secretive Florida augmented reality startup that raised $542 million in October, just brought on Neal Stephenson as its “chief futurist.” That title conjures up images of AOL’s eccentric Shingy, who is the company’s “digital prophet.” But take a look at Stephenson’s background and the hire totally makes sense.

Stephenson is the author of Snow Crash, a 1992 science fiction book that was the “very first to conceptualize a social, virtual world in a coherent way,” Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz said in a release. Stephenson has also written essays for national publications like Time, Wired and the New York Times. He has also written fiction books touching on nanotechnology, robotics and other futuristic technologies that have now arrived.

Stephenson said in a blog post on Magic Leap’s website, where it appears he will be writing regularly, that the time feels right to give people a new medium because “the creative minds who make games have done about as much as is possible in two dimensions.”

“I’m fascinated by the science, but not qualified to work on it,” Stephenson wrote. “Where I hope I can be of use is in thinking about what to do with this tech once it is available to the general public. ‘Chief Futurist’ runs the risk of being a disembodied brain on a stick. I took the job on the understanding that I would have the opportunity to get a few things done.”

The hire comes one week after Magic Leap grabbed Beats Music CFO Scott Henry to be its CFO. With $592 million in funding now in its pocket, these won’t be Magic Leap’s last hires.