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HIAWATHA BRAY | TECH LAB

Microsoft device conjures a new reality

Microsoft

The HoloLens is used for an anatomy lesson.

By Globe Staff 

I put on the glasses, and everything changed. The room looked the same, only now there was a pixellated unicorn sitting on a table, an astronaut hovering 10 feet above the floor, a team of detectives analyzing clues in a kidnapping case. Each was a computer-generated image, but each seemed nearly as solid and real as the walls and floors around them.

All because I’d put on a strange-looking headset that streamed digital images before my eyes. But it wasn’t one of those virtual reality (VR) headsets you’ve been hearing about. Instead, it was something a great deal cooler — a device that melds virtual reality images with the real world.

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The device is called HoloLens. It’s from Microsoft Corp. and could someday become the next great universal gadget. You know — the device you can’t do without, like a TV or smartphone.

And if HoloLens does catch on, we could all pay for it in diminished privacy.

You’ve been warned. And you won’t listen. This thing is too cool.

Think of HoloLens as a head-mounted laptop, but shaped like an oversized Google Glass with sleek plastic lenses covering your eyes.

I tried it during a recent visit to Cramer, a corporate marketing agency in Norwood that hopes to use it for product demonstrations at trade shows.

Microsoft

The HoloLens.

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For now, Microsoft is selling HoloLens only to businesses; with its $3,000 price tag, hardly anyone else can afford one. It’s also rather bulky. You wouldn’t want to wear it all day. But make it lighter and cheaper, say under $1,000, and Microsoft may have the next iPhone.

And maybe not just Microsoft. On Wednesday, Microsoft announced that the software that drives HoloLens will be licensed to hardware makers around the world, so that other companies can build similar devices, and perhaps even better ones.

VR devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive immerse the user in a 3-D world, where everything you see is computer-generated. But the headset blinds you to real people and objects. And since it must be tethered to a high-end PC, you’ve got to stay put.

Then there are “augmented reality” or AR systems, like the yellow first-down line you see during a televised football game. The line’s not really there; it’s a layer of digital data spread on top of the real field.

Companies such as PTC Corp. in Needham make AR products that let car mechanics “see” a digital blueprint of a vehicle’s wiring. But as useful as they are, AR images look blandly two-dimensional.

Microsoft calls HoloLens a “mixed reality” device, an AR-VR hybrid. When wearing it, you see the real world as plainly as ever. But everyday objects are combined with programmed images that are projected on the lenses to create maximum realism. The images look fully formed and three-dimensional, like the holograms in a “Star Wars” movie.

A bank of cameras in the Holo-Lens scans the environment, and turns it into a digital map, allowing it to display holographic images accurately in your surroundings. Say there’s a chair in the room. A character in a HoloLens computer game can appear to sit in it. If there’s a table, the character can place a virtual object on top of it.

It’s not just for fun and games. Imagine a team of architects working on a digital 3-D model of a skyscraper. With their untethered HoloLenses, they can walk around the model, viewing it from multiple angles. Or they can use hand gestures to manipulate and modify it.

At Cramer, senior vice president Brent Turner said the company plans to generate HoloLens simulations of a client’s new products, then give trade show visitors a dazzling virtual tour. “We are going to use it to surprise and delight,” Turner said.

With HoloLens, even everyday tasks seem magical. You can “paste” computer windows on your walls, turning a room into a mosaic of screens. On one wall you can put up a Microsoft Word document; just type by talking. On another, a Web browser where you scroll up and down by waving a finger in the air.

You think it’s odd to see everybody on the subway staring raptly at their smartphones? Wait until we’re all wearing HoloLenses. We’ll grope and gesture toward targets only we can see, our faces alight with silly grins. Some of us, blessed with a measure of self-respect, will leave our HoloLenses at home. But many may let our freak flags fly.

What about privacy? Remember when bars and restaurants banned Google Glass, because of its built-in video camera? Wait till a few million people wear HoloLenses, each programmed to video-scan everything and everybody within range. Throw in facial-recognition software, and anyone could look up the criminal record or credit history of a passing stranger, literally at a glance.

“Privacy is going to be a major, unavoidable concern,” warned Brian Wassom, a Michigan attorney whose blog, “Augmented Legality,” explores the legal implications of AR technology. But Wassom figures that, after some grumbling, we’ll get used to it.

“It’s going to be a frog-in-water kind of thing,” Wassom said. By the time we realize the water’s boiling, it’s too late.

But who knew the death of privacy was going to look this cool?


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.