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4 June 2015

How Microsoft’s breakthrough in portable holographic technology could make science fiction into science fact

...and pornography.

By Tosin Thompson

Popcorn at the ready, Microsoft began watching its favourite movie, Back to the Future II (1989), laughing at the hammy script and the high-budget-but-corny production.

Half laughing and half gasping, Microsoft suddenly choked on an unpopped corn. The future was set in 2015.

2015?

2015?!

It’s 2015 now and there are still no hoverboards, no flying cars, and worst of all, no holographic Hollywood blockbusters. 

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Disgusted by its failure to live up to the Eighties’ expectations of 2015, Microsoft decided enough was enough. No more primitive red-cyan hipster 3D glasses for the cinema. Microsoft was going to take 3D technology to a new level, one where the observer could not only see but also sense their presence in a real-world setting, amid 3D photorealistic people. 

To do this, Microsoft would have to create a hybrid of Google Glass and upmarket laboratory glasses called “HoloLens”, a portable gadget that enhances Microsoft’s aims for realness by allowing 3D visual people in the living room.

And Microsoft did just that:

Photo: Microsoft HoloLens

Robert Zemeckis had better go back to the past and rewrite the Jaws 19 scene

Microsoft’s HoloLens is the world’s first untethered holographic computer. HoloLens has see-through holographic definition lenses, a spatial sound to allow the wearer to better hear where sounds are coming from by preserving the difference in sound between the ears, and advanced sensors to capture information about what the wearer is doing and where they are.

Not only does HoloLens come with a built-in central processing unit (CPU) and graphic processing unit (GPU), it also has what Microsoft calls a “hologram processing unit (HPU)”, which gives the wearer the ability to spatially map the world around them  running without wires, all while processing terabytes of information from all three units, all in real time.

So, HoloLens could allow the wearer to play Minecraft all round their living room, run a 100-metre race, or watch Theo Walcott kick a ball into a net:

HoloLens’ PlayStation 2 quality 3D images can be forgiven (for now) as HoloLens is a new breakthrough in communication science. The product will cost around £300-£600, and will be released (potentially) in December. More details of the technology will be released this summer.

“We [Microsoft] believe Windows 10 will fundamentally make everything people do with computers today more valuable, more immersive and more personal,” says Alex Kipman, a technical fellow at Microsoft, at Microsoft’s HoloLens live demonstration.

Microsoft is trying to recapture timeless experiences, such as the first time you experienced MS Paint or MS Solitaire, which helped you discover what the world of the mouse and keyboard world felt like. In the same timeless fashion, MS wants its users to discover what a holographic landscape feels like; to do this, Microsoft created “HoloStudio”, which allows users to create their own holograms, 3D print them, and share them, he said.

Kipman introduced Lorraine Bardeen, the Director of Business at Microsoft, who demonstrated a 3D hologram of a man with tan leather loafers and a fitted beige jacket called “Terry Myerson”, HoloLens’ homepage (which was directed to the wall she was looking at), and how to create a UFO-themed quadcopter with HoloStudio – all done with a slight flick of the finger or basic vocal instructions. Kipman then presented to the audience a 3D print of Bardeen’s quadcopter.

HoloLens’ holographic computing even stretches into space as Microsoft has collaborated with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to produce a tool called “Onsight”, which connects scientists and engineers with the environment of Curiosity, Nasa’s Mars rover, by virtually putting scientists on Mars – allowing them to explore Mars in the comfort of their offices. JPL’s plan is to deploy Onsight into missions and operations by the summer, and control rovers on Mars with HoloLens by July.

What market would HoloLens really succeed in? Let’s not be prudish  it seems HoloLen’s most profitable application is in pornography. On Windows Central Forum, an anonymous user by the name of “AaHaa” says “I hate to be the pervert to bring this up but… isn’t the HoloLens combined with porn a HUGE cash cow? […] With HoloLens, you’d be able to project uh… people right into your living room – a lot more realistic and engaging, right?”

I ask Microsoft HoloLens if they plan to work with the porn industry, and their (vague) response is as follows:

We are excited about the possibilities enabled by Microsoft HoloLens and see a wide array of use-cases for all. We believe developers, commercial organizations, designers, creators, and those seeking a whole new way to be entertained will find unique value in Microsoft HoloLens, but more information is not available at this time.
 
This is just the beginning. Microsoft, together with developers and our commercial partners, will continue to help designers, creators, and all harness the power of holographic computing with Microsoft HoloLens.

So it seems only time will tell…

I ask Dr Pierre-Alexandre Blanche, an associate research professor of the University of Arizona, if HoloLens could be used for sports games. He replies: “I am not sure about sport games. For that application you want to display an entire arena, and there is no interaction with your surroundings. A stereoscopic system such as the Oculus Rift is better suited, and to share it with friends and family, a large screen television is even better.”

But companies, like Oculus Rift, which are working on ways to capture live action such as sports or movies, only capture the 3D view from the position of the camera at the time of shooting. Rift also uses a less sophisticated method of tricking the brain into perceiving 3D objects, but they cannot blend virtual content with the real world.

A startup company called Magic Leap, backed by Google, is developing its own hologram technology. So far, however, Magic Leap’s demonstrations of its technology have involved animated content but no live action recorded in 3D. So it seems Microsoft HoloLens is in a league of its own.

“That said, I think the MS HoloLens can revolutionise collaborative tasks where group of people are at different locations,” Blanche adds. “You need to see the colleagues next to you, but also the people at the remote location.”

If you’re as much of a Sword Art Online/Back to the Future fan as I am, you’ll be looking forward to this.