Both Facebook and Sony are in the process of staking out a future for themselves in the world of virtual reality, particularly as the technology applies to video games. Last year Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus, the maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset which, among other uses, will provide a super-immersive video game experience. Sony unveiled a VR headset of its own, codenamed Project Morpheus, that will work with its PlayStation 4 console.
Meanwhile, Microsoft kept its lips sealed about any similar plans. That is, until a Windows event on Wednesday, when it unveiled a device called HoloLens.
HoloLens is a headset, but it’s distinct from Oculus and Project Morpheus in a number of ways. First, it won’t need to be tethered to a separate computing device to work. The HoloLens headset contains everything it needs to run.
Second, instead of blocking users’ vision and immersing them in an entirely virtual world as Project Morpheus and Oculus do, HoloLens lets you see the world around you and inserts digital elements that appear as if they exist in the real world. It’s not virtual reality, it’s augmented reality — or “mixed reality,” as Microsoft puts it. Watch this demonstration video to get an idea of how it works.
So how does Microsoft plan to use HoloLens? That’s not fully clear, but the company has some ideas, as indicated by a handful of demos it showed off to reporters at the event. One involved a video Skype call, in which the callers could draw things in each other’s field of view. Another showed the 3-D design app HoloStudio letting users interact with the designs as if they existed in real space.
One of the less useful but more entertaining potential uses for HoloLens is gaming. Microsoft showed a Minecraft demo that made it look like an entire blocky game world existed in the room the player was in. Another demo gives the HoloLens wearer the impression he or she is exploring Mars, effectively turning the device into a virtual reality headset.
After the presentation, Xbox head Phil Spencer chimed in on the company’s plans for using HoloLens for gaming. He indicated that, at least for now, the company is focusing on HoloLens instead of developing a separate virtual reality headset like Sony and Oculus.
Spencer said, “To me, there’s not a successful consumer electronics device on the planet where gaming is not a primary app category, and I think HoloLens will work the same way.”
He continued: “I think gaming will be important. Specific scenarios with the Xbox, we’re thinking hard about. People could ask about streaming solutions. Could I use it as a display for my Xbox? We don’t have answers to any of those things, but know it’s all part of the same organization.”
The Xbox team has been hiring software engineers lately for “top secret” projects. It’s highly possible that HoloLens plays a key role in the ideas the team will be testing out. Spencer didn’t offer any specific plans, but it’s clear gaming will be a part of HoloLens.
In the meantime, Microsoft has a long way to go with the device. Many reporters who got to try the demo reported that the headset was bulky and uncomfortable (Engadget says wearing it “feels like someone is tightening your head into a vice”). The New York Times writes: “The holograms did not have very high resolution, and sometimes they were a little dull. Yet they were crisp enough to instantly create the illusion of reality — which was far more than I was expecting.”
Microsoft says it plans to release HoloLens around the time it releases Windows 10, which is expected to come out later this year. No pricing information has been announced yet.
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