SAN FRANCISCO — To fully grasp the potential of HoloLens, all you have to do is take a trip to the surface of Mars.
Fortunately, that's easy enough to do via Destination Mars, an app developed for Microsoft's augmented-reality headset with the help of NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Destination Mars uses footage captured by the Mars Curiosity rover to recreate the surface of the Red Planet so that it unfolds out in front of anyone donning a HoloLens. The experience is an offshoot of an ongoing collaboration between Microsoft and NASA in which the space agency is using HoloLens as part of mission operations for exploring Mars.
Microsoft was understandably eager to show off Operation Mars during its Build conference this week, setting up a demo area on the show floor where developers attending the event could experience this virtual tour of Mars for themselves. I took a walk-through one evening after the crowds had dissipated, and it was eye-opening trip in more ways than one.
The detailed recreation of Mars' surface certainly impressed me as I roamed about an otherwise empty room with seven other people. Looking through the HoloLens' screen, I could see the cracks in the ground under me or look up to see Mount Sharp looming off in the distance. There's an impressive amount of detail in the Mars landscape — you can see the edges of rocks eroded by years of wind gusts, for example — so when NASA scientists talk about how HoloLens lets them explore images from the Mars rover from the comfort of their office, you understand how it's more than just marketing hype.
And that's probably the most revealing thing about Destination Mars: It really underscores how the HoloLens is a serious device meant for practical purposes.
Microsoft would agree with that assessment. "The primary use of HoloLens is not gaming," said Scott Erickson, general manager of HoloLens, during a post-Build keynote briefing with reporters. The device is shipping to developers now with some games — and now that HoloLens is in developers' hands, certainly more will be created — but it's clear Microsoft thinks of its headset as a productivity tool first and foremost.
It's an important point to make, especially as virtual reality headsets hitting the market right now place the emphasis squarely on gaming. The now-shipping Oculus Rift offers other kinds of apps, but the current buzz around the VR device centers around its gaming potential. The same holds true for the HTC Vive, which arrives this month.
Microsoft is taking a different tack with the HoloLens. Besides Destination Mars, the company gave a prominent spot to Case Western University during its Build keynote, to show how the AR headset can help medical school students explore human anatomy with holographic organs appearing right in front of them. Microsoft also touted a HoloLens version of Skype, showcasing how video chats will translate to an augmented reality device.
My virtual trip to Mars was my third opportunity to wear a HoloLens for an extended stretch, and each time what's struck me is how useful the headset could prove to be for visualizing designs, creating 3D mockups and communicating with other people. Yes, some of the demos have shown off the lighter side of HoloLens — this week, I also got to take out some avatars by firing off virtual projectiles at them in a separate demo. And developers could certainly come up with games that take advantage of the HoloLens, particularly if they focus on how multiple users can interact with the same virtual objects. But in my experience, the HoloLens shines brightest when it's being put to work.
I don't think you need to be a rocket scientist to see that, though based on Destination Mars, I think rocket scientists would certainly back me up on that.