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Microsoft's new 3D glasses, explained

3D glasses in 2015, as depicted by Hollywood in 1989.
3D glasses in 2015, as depicted by Hollywood in 1989.
Universal Pictures

When Marty McFly traveled forward in time to 2015 in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, one of the technological marvels he found in the future was 3D glasses. In the movie, they were manufactured by JVC, but Microsoft hopes to make them a reality here in the real world.

Microsoft's new product, called HoloLens, will allow people to project virtual objects into the real world. Microsoft has developed a new user interface for 3D computing and hopes to create an important new class of computing devices. Microsoft's 3D goggles could be used by architects to visualize new designs, by NASA scientists to explore the surface of Mars, and by business executives for immersive video conferencing.

Read on for details about Microsoft's new 3D computing platform.

What does HoloLens do?

(Microsoft)

HoloLens is a headset that provides users with an immersive 3D experience. On the most basic level, it works the same way as most other 3D displays: it creates an illusion of depth by displaying an image with a slightly different perspective to each of the user's two eyes. The device plays different sounds in each ear to further heighten the 3D effect.

What makes the HoloLens different from products that came before is that Microsoft uses complex hardware and software to tightly integrate virtual objects with the real world. The HoloLens glasses are transparent, so people wearing them can see the real world around them, with a variety of virtual objects projected on top.

And because HoloLens has a sophisticated understanding of the world around it, these objects can interact with the real world too. For example, a virtual TV can appear mounted to the real wall, or virtual objects can seem to rest on a table or floor.

So these are not real holograms?

Luke Skywalker discovers R2D2 has a Tupac hologram. (Sethward)

If you were expecting a device that can project three-dimensional images the way R2D2 does in Star Wars, you're going to be disappointed. No one has figured out how to make that kind of hologram a reality. Indeed, the recent trend of musicians appearing at concerts as "holograms" aren't really holograms either: they're two-dimensional images that are projected in a clever way that makes them appear to hover in space.

The "holograms" projected by Microsoft's HoloLens are only visible to the person wearing the 3D glasses. If someone wearing a HoloLens interacts with the objects she sees, it will seem like she's imagining things to someone who isn't wearing a headset of his own.

This sounds like a fun technology demo, but is it actually useful?

(Microsoft)

HoloLens isn't just able to project virtual objects into the real world. It also allows users to interact with those objects. HoloLens knows exactly where the user is standing, which way she's moving, and where her hands and fingers are. This likely uses the same 3D sensors that powers Microsoft's popular Kinect gaming platform.

By tracking the movements of the user's head, the device knows exactly what she's looking at. And HoloLens can respond to voice commands, too.

Microsoft believes these capabilities will allow people to interact with computers in entirely new ways. Instead of selecting objects with a mouse or touchscreen, users will be able to simply look at a virtual object and then give a verbal command. People can reach out and touch virtual objects, or they can "pick up" virtual tools. In one demo, a Microsoft employee uses a virtual spray can to paint a 3-D model.

Microsoft believes the platform will have important workplace applications. For example, a promotional video shows a woman working on the design for a new motorcycle. She walks over to a real, partially-constructed prototype of the motorcycle and adds a virtual fuel tank on top. Another employee, who is also wearing a HoloLens headset, is able to see the design and suggest changes.

It's easy to imagine architects, interior designers, and other creative professionals using this kind of technology to show clients immersive 3D models of their designs. And Microsoft says it has been working with NASA to build an immersive 3D model of the Martian landscape around the Mars rovers, allowing scientists on the ground to walk around the virtual Martian landscape and mark items for the rovers to investigate.

What are the major HoloLens competitors?

(Microsoft)

There are several different companies working on similar 3D products, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

The best-known competitor is Occulus Rift. Facebook bought the company behind this 3D headset last year for $2 billion. The Rift provides an immersive experience similar to that offered by HoloLens, but the company's focus on gaming gives its device somewhat different capabilities. Rift is designed to help users navigate fully virtual worlds. It doesn't have HoloLens's capabilities to project virtual objects in the real world, nor does it have HoloLens's complex user interface.

One device that can project virtual objects into the real world is CastAR, a pair of 3D glasses from the startup Technical Illusions. Like HoloLens, the CastAR glasses are transparent, allowing people to look around at the real world, while virtual images are projected on top of it. Launched as a KickStarter project in 2013, CastAR has begun shipping devices to its earliest backers. It's one of the few 3D products that's independent of any technology company.

Google's Glass is another obvious point of comparison, but Glass isn't a direct competitor to HoloLens. Glass projects information such as travel directions or photographs onto a virtual screen that appears in front of a user's face, but Google isn't really in the business of creating immersive virtual worlds.

That could change, though. Google has invested $542 million in a company called Magic Leap that is apparently working on some kind of immersive 3D technology. We'll have to wait and see what the company comes up with.

A final contender is Intel, which unveiled a new product line called RealSense last year. By itself, RealSense isn't a competitor to HoloLens and Rift, but Intel's sophisticated 3D cameras and software could serve as important building blocks for other technology companies' 3D products.

When will I be able to buy one?

(Microsoft)

Microsoft is being vague about this.

HoloLens was announced Wednesday as part of a broader presentation about Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 10 operating system. During the presentation, Microsoft demonstrated a fully working prototype. The company has also given a Wired reporter a hands-on experience with the product.

But there could be a big gap between a functional prototype and a shipping product. For HoloLens to be successful, Microsoft has to come up with a suite of applications that will actually be useful to ordinary users. And while the capabilities Microsoft demonstrated were impressive, a lot of them didn't seem terribly practical.

Microsoft says HoloLens will be available "in the Windows 10 timeframe." Since Windows 10 is supposed to come out in 2015, that probably means HoloLens is expected out in the next year or two. But the company has left itself some wiggle room to delay the product release if they feel more time would make it a more compelling offering.

Update: I added CastAR to the list of competitors.