Late in the day on Wednesday, Microsoft gave a handful of press members at its Build developer conference a sneak peek at the HoloLens hardware it began shipping to developers that same day.
The "Holographic Academy" aimed to get a group of about 70 journalists from a simple canvas to a working holographic application in just an hour, through a guided tour of the development tools for Microsoft's new augmented reality (AR) headgear. In the end, we were left with a fascinating glimpse into what Microsoft has in store for its AR headset.
Since last year, the HoloLens hardware has remained largely unchanged. Microsoft remained committed to a visor that's supported by an adjustable headband that wraps around a user's head. It's designed to distribute the HoloLens's weight over users' heads and shoulders, rather than weighing down their faces like other augmented reality headsets.
After setting the hardware up on my head, it was fairly comfortable for me to wear, take off and put back on again, even with my massive glasses that usually cause problems for me with virtual reality headsets and other head-mounted displays.
Unlike last year, when Microsoft employees had to measure my pupil distance and give me a headset that would fit my eyes, this year's model ran through a straightforward calibration sequence to get the headset's twin displays ready for me.
Like the experience of using the HoloLens last year, the device’s field of view is smaller than what Microsoft shows in its on-stage demos, which use a wider angle lens than what people wearing the device can normally see. However, I didn’t find the effect disconcerting this year, now that I was expecting a smaller viewing box in front of my eyes.
After that, I was presented with the device's start screen, where I could open Microsoft Edge, summon Cortana, and look at the device's settings. Opening Edge allowed me to place a browser window anywhere in the room around me, and Cortana appeared as a pair of floating circles ready to answer a question.
I didn't take time to explore how Edge worked, but one HoloLens engineer said that he often took his development kit hardware home and digitally placed a Netflix window in his sink to watch videos while he did dishes -- wearing a HoloLens.
I also got a chance to experience HoloLens's networking capabilities, which will allow developers to build applications for users to share holograms with one another. I, along with the five other people near me, chose a floating, holographic robot avatar. I couldn't see my own avatar (since it moved out of my vision with every twist of my head) but other folks had their avatars floating just above their shoulders, bobbing along with their head movements.
The effect was smooth, and even allowed my fellow students and I to experiment with shooting virtual energy balls at one anothers' avatars to try and knock them out. That responsiveness may have had something to do with the fact that I was on a Microsoft network specifically set up for this demo, but even so, that demo shows that it's doable.
Basic networking systems are built into Microsoft's HoloToolkit developer tools, and should help app makers get started with networked HoloLens applications fairly easily. That's important, since developers who plan to build productivity applications that let people work together on HoloLens will need to network the devices together.
Neeraj Wadhwa, a senior software engineer at Microsoft who helped lead the demonstrations, said that the networking framework will also let developers build applications that run on other Windows and non-Windows devices to let other people interact with holograms.
Microsoft is shipping the HoloLens developer kit to its first set of handpicked app makers starting Wednesday, and it will be interesting to see what those people will do with the devices. Microsoft already has a set of partners lined up to build applications for the HoloLens, including Autodesk, NASA and Case Western Reserve University.
It's clear that there's plenty of interest for Microsoft's new product. What comes next is whether or not the device can capture the money of developers, businesses and consumers alike.