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Strapping on Microsoft's Holographic Headset for a Quick Trip to Mars

Microsoft's HoloLens visor and Mars imagery make for an otherworldly experience.


Preparing for my trip to Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, I expected cold, rain and coffee in abundance.

I hadn’t expected a side trip to Mars.

Microsoft offered journalists this otherworldly experience Wednesday as it unveiled HoloLens, the company’s entry into the world of augmented reality. The Windows 10 compatible, head-mounted display projects holographic images into the real world.

Journalists were stripped of their usual tools to take their holographic journey, surrendering laptops, smartphones, cameras — in short, anything one could use to document the technology that has been incubating quietly for years.

We each donned a HoloLens developer’s kit — a steampunk version of the sleek, futuristic visor Microsoft showed off on stage. Unlike some other VR headsets that swallow at least half of the wearer’s head, this headgear looks like Coke-bottle-thick glasses affixed to a bicycle helmet harness. There’s a hulking battery dangling from the neck.

Google Glass looks downright subtle in comparison.

The awkwardness of the HoloLens was forgotten as soon as the holograms appeared before my eyes — a 360-degree canvas of the Martian surface, captured by the Mars Rover and stitched together to create a realistic projection of the red planet. In reality, I was standing in the middle of a small room in Redmond. In the virtual world, I was on another planet.

I could see dusty Martian rocks at my feet, mountains rising in the distance and the edge of a giant trench off to my right. The Mars Rover peered over my shoulder. Everywhere I looked — to the front, the left, the right, the rear — there was a new alien vista.

I was tethered to a computer — something that likely won’t be a part of the “real” living room experience — but I could still move around a bit. When I stepped forward, it was a transportive experience. Of course, the other senses were missing, so it wasn’t entirely immersive. But it was powerful.

Unlike some virtual reality experiences, which obscure the real world with the simulated one, these holograms were projected against the walls of the demonstration room. As a result, I never felt disoriented.

This was one of four demonstrations that Microsoft offered, and the most compelling of the bunch. The second demo was a trippy Skype call, in which the person I was calling talked me through a household fix. The person on the line, an “electrician,” could see what I was seeing through the lens, and offered guidance as I connected a light switch.

Microsoft also offered a demonstration of a gaming application, a Minecraft-like experience in which a projection of a castle appeared on a wooden coffee table. And last, there was HoloStudio, which showed how holograms could be used to construct an object that remains static as you move around it. For example, someone could construct a toy car out of thin air while others wearing the lens sit around and watch the action or collaborate on prototyping.

Microsoft isn’t saying when this new product will ship or how much it will cost. And it’s unclear whether developers will embrace it and create compelling experiences that will lure consumers. These factors will determine the HoloLens’ commercial success.

But I certainly enjoyed the trip.

Here’s some NASA video showing how mission scientists might use the technology:

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