Microsoft recently unveiled the HoloLens, its new 3D glasses, sparking new discussions of how augmented reality devices will change how we interact with the screens we use on a daily basis. As the LA Times notes, the HoloLens is similar to a number of other augmented and virtual reality devices in various stages of development. But while Google Glass, for example — which Google is currently remaking to prepare for a relaunch — uses a tiny screen on which users can run apps, the HoloLens is designed to provide an immersive experience. It’s also designed to keep Microsoft relevant as computing goes mobile and leaves the desktop behind. And unlike the virtual reality goggles under development at Facebook’s Oculus VR division, HoloLens can merge a virtual world with the actual one around the wearer.
When wearing the HoloLens, you’ll still be able to see, navigate, and interact with the world around you. The headset will track your movements and where you’re looking, and enable you to use hand gestures to interact with the 3D images it overlays on your surroundings. The headset uses a camera that looks out into a room to determine where walls and objects are, and uses that information to project images on top of them.
Timothy B. Lee, writing for Vox, posits that one of the most important applications for Microsoft’s HoloLens, and other models of 3D glasses that will compete with it, may be driving the television into obsolescence. Instead of watching movies or television shows on a physical screen, individuals or families could watch them on a virtual screen floating in front of them. A virtual television projected by a set of 3D glasses would not only be able to display 3D images, but could transform the living room into a virtual movie theater, or even place the viewers right in the middle of a movie set or a football game — all without isolating users who are watching a game or a show together thanks to the transparent nature of the HoloLens headset.
A traditional virtual reality headset would completely block out the real world and immerse the wearer in a virtual world instead. But augmented reality headsets enable watching a movie, a TV show, or a game to remain a social experience. If multiple friends or family members are wearing a HoloLens headset, for example, and watching a movie together, everyone could be looking at a virtual screen that appears to occupy the same space in the room and to show the same movie, enabling them to laugh at the same jokes and share a bowl of popcorn the same way they would with a traditional television. And while large TVs are expensive, difficult to manufacture, and take up a lot of space in the owner’s living room, a virtual TV screen could be as big as the user wants it to be, even taking over an entire wall in his or her house, and create the illusion that it’s farther away than the dimensions of the living room would actually allow.
Lee notes that, eventually, content creators could drop the idea of screens altogether, pointing out how Microsoft’s demonstration of the HoloLens included a 360 degree view of the surface of Mars, created with NASA, in which an employee’s desk appeared to be sitting in the middle of the Martian landscape. Similarly, movies could fully surround viewers, and sports fans could watch games from the viewpoint of cameras over a football field, right next to the tennis net, or from the best seats in the hockey arena.
Lee points out that Microsoft’s Kinect sensor costs $150 to $250, and because HoloLens combines Kinect-style sensors with other components, the initial iteration of the headset will likely cost even more. As the technology matures, 3D headsets will become smaller, lighter, and less expensive, making it more likely that households could own several. Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine lighter, more power-efficient versions of technology eventually influencing our choices of devices beyond the living room.
A future version of an augmented reality headset could replace not only your television, but also your laptop and even your smartphone. Lighter headsets that are comfortable to wear all day could could push consumer electronics beyond the mouse and keyboard and even beyond the touchscreen smartphone. Headsets from Google, Microsoft, and others could provide a more natural way to interact with technology.
Such companies are betting that hand gestures, 3D images, and interfaces superimposed over the real world are the next generation of the tools that we use everyday. Whether you’re making a phone call, organizing your files and notes for a meeting, playing a game, or watching a movie, augmented reality devices and interfaces hold an exciting array of new possibilities for making tasks more immersive and intuitive.
But in n an era where we’re all addicted to screens of varying shapes and sizes, the rise of augmented reality devices begs the question of whether we’re really building on top of the real world, or simply blocking it out with an increasingly virtual one. Writing for The New York Times, David Carr explains his “unease for what Microsoft’s HoloLens will mean for our screen-obsessed lives,” explaining that “as screens have proliferated, the amount of actual, unencumbered reality we experience seems endangered.” Beyond viewing content on our phones during elevator rides or while in line for coffee, we supplement our media viewing experiences with second screens, where we can talk with friends on social media or via instant messaging about what we’re watching.
Carr notes that American businesses have capitalized on consumers’ growing appetite for screen time. Amazon was built to leverage the power of the Internet to deliver physical objects to your door, and has since progressed to buying and producing content that can be streamed to your home. As screen-enabled experiences become more pervasive in our daily lives, Carr wonders if Windows (or something like it) will become the operating system not only for users’ desktops but also their worlds — and simultaneously reduce the need for users to venture out into the real world.
Philosophical issues and social implications aside, Microsoft’s HoloLens could be the first headset to demonstrate applications of augmented reality technology for the general consumer. Devices like the HoloLens have huge implications not just for television, but for PCs and for smartphones as well, and it’s becoming less and less far-fetched to think that augmented reality could become the next significant computing platform.