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Microsoft HoloLens: Will It Make Augmented Reality Cooler Than Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift have generated the lion's share of excitement and publicity in the gaming world over the last couple of years - and there's no question that VR gaming is a very big deal.

Microsoft logo

Augmented reality, though, may eventually be the real winner. Most people had never even heard of AR until this summer, when Pokemon Go became a world-wide phenomenon. The beauty of augmented reality is that don't have to be tethered to a computer in order to be placed into a virtual fantasy world; the computer-generated content is simply "overlaid" on the real world, so all you need is a special headset.

The AR device that appears to be closest to market is the Microsoft HoloLens, currently only available to developers at a cost of $3000 per headset. But when it's finally released to consumers, it should truly revolutionize gaming and many more serious tasks.

What Is HoloLens?

The Microsoft AR device known as HoloLens is a stand-alone product. You just put on the headset, which looks sort of like Geordi's LaForge's visor from Star Trek: The Next Generation - if the visor were on steroids. A computer is built into the visor with on-board graphic and holographic processors, 2 gigs of RAM, 64 gigs of storage and speakers, plus four "environment sensing" cameras, a depth camera, light and inertia sensors, four microphones and holographic lenses, with Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity.

3D Illustration of a Virtual reality

The bottom line is that the HoloLens will create full-color, multi-dimensional holograms all around you. You're the only one who can see and hear them, and you're able to interact with them as if they were real. A VR headset connected to your computer or gaming system will make you feel that you're in a completely different world. An AR device like the HoloLens will put the world into your living room alongside your couch and bookcases.

Uses for the HoloLens

It's still relatively early in the development process, so many projected uses for Microsoft's HoloLens are still theoretical. But it will certainly be welcomed into the gaming world. The first step, already in in-house beta, is a reality 3D version of Minecraft (which Microsoft owns). But the HoloLens will be compatible with XBox Live and developers are hard at work creating applications, so gaming will undoubtedly be a major focus for users.

Microsoft HoloLens

The possibilities go much further, though. The company has demonstrated how a HoloLens allows its wearer to create 3D objects and assemble 3D models, and chat with holograms representing Skype users. The AR system will also be compatible with Office, Windows Maps, Groove Music and other Windows applications.

But Microsoft has much more in mind. For example, the company has partnered with Volvo to create a system that lets you view a car with various colors and options before you buy, and has demonstrated architects designing buildings and medical students examining bodies in augmented reality. Even more impressively, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working with Microsoft; the Mars rover Curiosity is outfitted with sensors and cameras so researchers can explore the surface of Mars through HoloLens headsets.

HoloLens Availability

Only developers can purchase the HoloLens right now. There's no firm consumer release date, although some are hoping the product will be available for Christmas 2016. When the HoloLens hits the market, though, this new augmented reality tool should be red hot, since the much less-ambitious Pokemon Go AR app has already set records as the most successful game launch - of any type - in history.

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