Project HoloLens: Our Exclusive Hands-On With Microsoft’s Holographic Goggles

It’s the end of October, when the days have already grown short in Redmond, Washington, and gray sheets of rain are just beginning to let up. In several months, Microsoft will unveil its most ambitious undertaking in years, a head-mounted holographic computer called Project HoloLens. But at this point, even most people at Microsoft have never heard of it. I walk through the large atrium of Microsoft’s Studio C to meet its chief inventor, Alex Kipman.

Alex Kipman.

The headset is still a prototype being developed under the codename Project Baraboo, or sometimes just “B.” Kipman, with shoulder-length hair and severely cropped bangs, is a nervous inventor, shifting from one red Converse All-Star to the other. Nervous, because he’s been working on this pair of holographic goggles for five years. No, even longer. Seven years, if you go back to the idea he first pitched to Microsoft, which became Kinect. When the motion-sensing Xbox accessory was released, just in time for the 2010 holidays, it became the fastest-selling consumer gaming device of all time.
Right from the start, he makes it clear that Baraboo will make Kinect seem minor league.

Kipman leads me into a briefing room with a drop-down screen, plush couches, and a corner bar stocked with wine and soda (we abstain). He sits beside me, then stands, paces a bit, then sits down again. His wind-up is long. He gives me an abbreviated history of computing, speaking in complete paragraphs, with bushy, expressive eyebrows and saucer eyes that expand as he talks. The next era of computing, he explains, won’t be about that original digital universe. “It’s about the analog universe,” he says. “And the analog universe has a fundamentally different rule set.”

Translation: you used to compute on a screen, entering commands on a keyboard. Cyberspace was somewhere else. Computers responded to programs that detailed explicit commands. In the very near future, you’ll compute in the physical world, using voice and gesture to summon data and layer it atop physical objects. Computer programs will be able to digest so much data that they’ll be able to handle far more complex and nuanced situations. Cyberspace will be all around you.

What will this look like? Well, holograms.

Click on link for video.

First Impressions

That’s when I get my first look at Baraboo. Kipman cues a concept video in which a young woman wearing the slate gray headset moves through a series of scenarios, from collaborating with coworkers on a conference call to soaring, Oculus-style, over the Golden Gate Bridge. I watch the video, while Kipman watches me watch the video, while Microsoft’s public relations executives watch Kipman watch me watch the video. And the video is cool, but I’ve seen too much sci-fi for any of it to feel believable yet. I want to get my hands on the actual device. So Kipman pulls a box onto the couch. Gingerly, he lifts out a headset. “First toy of the day to show you,” he says, passing it to me to hold. “This is the actual industrial design.”

Oh Baraboo! It’s bigger and more substantial than Google Glass, but far less boxy than the Oculus Rift. If I were a betting woman, I’d say it probably looks something like the goggles made by Magic Leap, the mysterious Google-backed augmented reality startup that has $592 million in funding. But Magic Leap is not yet ready to unveil its device. Microsoft, on the other hand, plans to get Project HoloLens into the hands of developers by the spring. (For more about Microsoft and CEO Satya Nadella’s plans for Project HoloLens, read WIRED’s February cover story.)

Kipman’s prototype is amazing. It amplifies the special powers that Kinect introduced, using a small fraction of the energy. The depth camera has a field of vision that spans 120 by 120 degrees—far more than the original Kinect—so it can sense what your hands are doing even when they are nearly outstretched.


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