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I just traveled to Mars with Microsoft’s HoloLens, and it was mind bending

Microsoft HoloLens turned an office into the surface of Mars, but the tech left me more breathless than the Red Planet itself.

I crouched down to peer into the shadows beneath a dusty red rock this afternoon, with the Curiosity rover looming over my right shoulder, its tire tracks as clear as ordinary sneaker prints in a muddy stream. But this was no streambed, and this overhanging piece of stone lay among the craggy rocks littering the arid landscape.

Microsoft HoloLens took me to Mars, but the tech left me more breathless than the Red Planet itself.

Unveiled a mere week or so after Google announced what sounds like the end of the road for Google Glass, HoloLens is another attempt to envision an augmented reality future where the world you see with your eyes is enhanced, transformed, and accentuated with digital data.

The world you see with your eyes is enhanced, transformed, and accentuated with digital data.

Microsoft calls it HoloLens and Holograms, but let’s be frank, we’re not talking about Princess Leia popping out of R2D2 and appearing to Obi Wan. Instead, HoloLens is presented to you and you alone, through a display beamed onto eyeglasses contained in a headset you wear. It what we normally call Augmented Reality, and more like Oculus Rift or Google Glass than anything else, but Microsoft’s vision is to do far more than just overlay information on the real world. Take my trip to Mars, for example.

Following the unveiling of the HoloLens at the Windows 10 Consumer Preview in Seattle, Microsoft led me and a handful of other reporters several stories underground to a HoloLens testing lab, which has remained a secret for years here in the Microsoft Visitor Center. Go Figure. Hologrambassadors (their word, not mine) guided me through a series of demos meant to show off a variety of experiences with the headset, including the Mars visualization.

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But that experience was nothing like the sleek, polished piece of hardware you might have seen during the Microsoft event – which is likely the reason we were asked to stash our gear in a locker before venturing down. No notebooks, no cameras, nothing. The sleek Best-Buy-ready item Microsoft showed off in a slick, real-time live demo apparently isn’t ready yet, despite what you saw on stage. Instead, I wore a HoloLens Developer Kit, which looked nothing like the shiny press photos below.

Because Microsoft took away my camera, I can’t show you the janky piece of hardware engineers gingerly slipped over my head, with plastic lenses more akin to the protective eyewear you wore in chemistry class than the sporty glasses Microsoft showed on stage. The final version will automatically compensate for the distance between your pupils, a biometric that varies between different people, but the Developer Edition I wore was manually adjusted to fit me after a Microsoft employee measured my IPD or inter-pupillary distance.

I can’t show you the power pack or whatever I wore around my neck, with a handful of fans blowing hot air on my chin, or the black protective tubing that linked the entire apparatus in some weird way to a PC doing something mysterious in a corner of the room. But I can tell you this: It was janky. And I didn’t care.

The experience was amazing, in a way that Samsung’s VR or Oculus Rift only scratches the surface at.

The experience was amazing, in a way that Samsung’s VR or Oculus Rift only scratches the surface at. When a Microsoft employee pressed the power button, the ordinary office room around me melted away, and I was transported to a photo realistic Martian landscape. This is what it would feel like to be an astronaut on the Red Planet. Hell, this is what it would feel like to be a Martian.

Thanks to the various rovers NASA has sent to Mars, we have terabytes of high resolution imagery of the planet. Microsoft’s HoloLens wrapped it around me, painting Mars over the office space. Step forward and I walked on Mars. Bend down and I got closer to rocks. Turn to my right and bam! There’s Curiosity, which is far taller in “real life” than you might think.

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You control the interface by essentially looking and pointing. A white donut identifies your focal point, and the system knows that when you raise a fist, then point and lower your index finger, you’re selecting an action. A selection of voice commands adds to the fun: I looked at a rock, raised my fist, lowered my finger, and planted a glowing, holograph of a flag on Mars.

That demo was just beginning. Built in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., this is no demo but NASA’s plan for how to send messages to Mars rovers in the future. Currently, scientists use a specialized piece of software to study flat, black and white satellite imagery; they examine the landscape around the Rover before picking a spot that looks kinda interesting. The HoloLens wiped away every part of the room I was in except for a desk and computer running this software.

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The desk’s legs stood on the dusty red ground, the ordinary monitor an outlandish artifact in the alien landscape. I moved the mouse off the screen and it followed into the Martian landscape. I could then click a rock to mark it, bring up detailed imagery, or whatever else NASA imagines.

Microsoft’s Hologrambassador (again, not my word) then added an extra level to the whole thing: a glowing animated figure that looked like the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was actually an avatar for an actual JPL employee, who walked me through some additional features. Again, amazing.

This is what it would feel like to be an astronaut on the Red Planet. Hell, this is what it would feel like to be a Martian.

A variety of other demos showed off additional features, including real time interaction via Skype, where I was shown how to wire up a lightswitch. The example was simple, but imagine the possibilities – a hovering TV screen of sorts over your kitchen as a real chef shows you how to poach an egg, annotating the real world before your very eyes. Or god forbid, my mom hovering before MY eyes as I diagnose yet another computer problem. (Sorry, Mom.)

In a more detailed demo for a group of us, a Microsoft employee walked through the Holo Studio app the company showed off on stage. Holo Studio lets you design and build 3D models using a virtual workbench with parts, a color picker, and buttons for actions such as shrink or duplicate. The room was full of 3D printed objects that the company said had been printed from models built using HoloLens.

There are more questions than answers at present: What does it cost? How do you get models built in Holo Studio onto your computer? Why did we have Developer Kits if the real deal was up and running? What sort of hardware powers this thing anyway?

Microsoft said it would have answers to many of those questions at the developer centric Build conference in March. Until then, I’m holding onto the memory of my five minutes on Mars. It was dry, it was dusty, and it was definitely cool.