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Microsoft's hologram-making, reality-augmenting, Mars-exploring glasses

It's pretty safe to say that of all the developments featured at the Windows 10 event at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters Wednesday, the hologram-producing, reality-augmenting HoloLens headset was the coolest.

The company demonstrated how the headset could be used to design products in a simulated 3D workspace and announced that NASA will use the technology to virtually walk on the surface of the red planet using data from the Mars Rover.

What is HoloLens?

Microsoft says, "Holograms are the next evolution in computing," and HoloLens is its entrance to this new, enhanced version of the world. Think less Oculus Rift, more computerized ski goggles; less R2-D2/Princess Leia, more "Minority Report"/"Her."

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Microsoft

HoloLens differs from the products we're most familiar with in the virtual or augmented reality space.

Oculus Rift, for instance, creates a virtual reality experience by closing the user off visually from the space around him and creating an entirely new virtual environment. Google Glass maintains your full range of vision and adds a little bit of the Web on top of it.

HoloLens has a clear, tinted visor and projects images that integrate with what you see through the glass (i.e the real world). Like the foul-mouthed creature from the video game in the near-futuristic movie "Her," a HoloLens image isn't just floating in space before you, it looks like it's standing on your living room floor.

But these aren't holograms as we typically know them. Indeed, unlike "Her" -- or Princess Leia's holographic plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Will.i.am's hologram election commentary -- the images are not beamed into the room. They are only visible to the HoloLens wearer.

They also differ in the same way from the "Minorty Report," but share the same sort of gesture control. In fact, Microsoft has enabled gesture, voice and eye-movement for manipulating holograms.

Goggles to Mars

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A screen view from OnSight, a software tool developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in collaboration with Microsoft. OnSight uses real rover data to create a 3-D simulation of the Martian environment where mission scientists can "meet" to discuss rover operations.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Microsoft demonstrated how they used HoloLens to design a quadcopter drone, then they showed off the 3D-printed final product. They also announced that NASA will be using the technology to work on Mars -- without being on Mars.

The project, called OnSight, will use images and data from the Curiosity Mars rover to create a 3D simulation of the planet surface, which NASA scientists can then explore from a first person perspective using the HoloLens headset. They can walk around, and kneel down to examine details up close.

"OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices," said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover."

OK, but so what?

As cool as it all seems, will HoloLens break through the glass-es ceiling? We'll see. People seemed to love the idea of watching 3D television, but didn't love donning heavy glasses to do it. Google Glass was something of a flash in the pan and is now on hiatus from the public. Oculus Rift has yet to be tested on the consumer market.

"It's another one of those," said CNET's Jeff Bakalar about the HoloLens contraption. "You see all these prototype products like Google Glass, virtual reality-type stuff -- nothing's really proven."

There's no denying that HoloLens looks awesome. The question is whether it's more than just another hollow attempt at making virtual reality take hold.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com