Microsoft's insane holographic vision of the future

See Microsoft's new HoloLens in action
See Microsoft's new HoloLens in action

Microsoft just introduced some of the coolest new technology the personal computer industry has seen for quite some time.

Windows Holographic is Microsoft's (MSFT, Tech30) insane vision of the future of computing. But it's real, and it's coming soon.

With Windows Holographic, you can see and interact with 3-D images all around you. You can pinch them, pull them, tap them and flick them away. You can "select" a hologram just by looking at it, and you can walk around them in 3-D space.

To see and "touch" the holograms, you have to wear a special headset called the "HoloLens." It kind of looks like Google (GOOGL, Tech30) Glass on steroids -- it fits around your head and has see-through holographic HD lenses that kind of look like ski goggles.

The HoloLens is itself a computer, equipped with a special chip called a holographic processing unit. It understands where you're looking, recognizes your gestures and voice, and it can map your surroundings.

Related: Microsoft unveils Windows 10

hololens
The HoloLens

The coolest part of HoloLens and Windows Holographic is that it's not just whiz-bang technology for technology's sake. Microsoft presented some actual compelling use cases for it.

In one scene, a woman wearing HoloLens needs help fixing her leaking sink. A man in another city sitting in front of a tablet sees what she is seeing, makes a mark around the correct pipe to turn, and the woman instantly sees a 3-D arrow showing her which pipe to fix.

Other scenes showed people being immersed in video games, performing software-guided surgeries and collaborating with team members on the design of a new motorcycle.

In a live demonstration of a new Microsoft app called HoloStudio, a Microsoft employee created a drone on stage, which she built and then controlled with her voice and her fingers. She then 3-D printed the drone with a virtual tap.

Windows Holographic was created by Microsoft fellow Alex Kipman, who also created the software used in the Xbox Kinect.

The biggest surprise about Windows Holographic was that it was a surprise at all. Today, tech secrets leak out so much that consumers pretty much know exactly what companies will announce well before they take the stage to present it. That wasn't the case with Windows Holographic.

Microsoft took great pains to prevent any leaks. The company said it has been working on the project for years, sending the team to work in a room that sits below Microsoft's visitors center.

"We're not exactly known for having a good track record for keeping secrets," Kipman said. "We were hiding in plain sight."

Related: Microsoft patents theater mode for your phone

Microsoft didn't give a precise date for when Windows Holographic and HoloLens would come to market. But the company said Windows 10 has already been built to support holographic displays. The holographic technology would be available "within the Windows 10 timeframe." Windows 10 is expected to go on sale later this year.

To start, the things people will be able to do with HoloLens will likely be very basic. So don't expect to be able to pick up a virtual gun and play holographic Halo or see a holographic representation of your redesigned kitchen right off the bat.

Like Google did with Glass and Facebook (FB, Tech30) is doing with its Oculus virtual reality headset, Microsoft is creating the hardware and software platform and asking developers to build killer apps and services to make the hologram technology come to life. But Microsoft thinks it created something far superior to Oculus and Glass, and Kipman said Microsoft would like to "humbly invite" developers for those platforms to come work with Windows Holographic and HoloLens.

You might not be ready to wear HoloLens on your face, and Microsoft might not convince everyday PC users that holograms are the computing wave of the future.

But that's almost besides the point. With its hologram announcement, Microsoft surprised and impressed the tech world by doing something new and unique.

It signaled that Microsoft shouldn't be discounted when it comes to innovation.

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