Personally, it's been a while since a Microsoft product launch really grabbed my attention but on January 21st Microsoft used a Windows 10 media briefing to flag a truly exciting new product. Welcome to the 'HoloLens'.

The HoloLens is an augmented reality headset . As the name suggests, it overlays 3D images on your field of vision but, importantly, it does not try to create a whole virtual reality like Oculus Rift etc but simply places virtual objects into your field of view. Even more impressive, if it works in the released version, is that Hololens can map the structure of the space around you allowing it to "rest" objects onto real physical tables etc. Microsoft say that it will even try to determine the physical characteristics of the real world objects so a springy sofa cushion will cause an object to bounce/tilt when it is shown on it. I am somewhat skeptical about this last claim but really hope to be proven wrong! It will be available later this year and has the potential to put Microsoft center stage in a way we haven't seen since the 1990's.

Here at TEKenable we develop software for the Microsoft stack so quite apart from my interest in technology, that gives us another reason to watch the HoloLens. And we're not the only ones. Analysts predict rapid growth in this sector with some expecting the market for augmented and virtual reality devices and software in the United States alone to reach $20 billion by 2020.

So what 's it all about.? What's Augmented Reality ? What is the HoloLens ? Does it deserve the attention it's getting ? Will it transform the now 40 year old Microsoft?

Augmented Reality

At it's simplest augmented reality (AR) involves overlaying a view of the real world with digital input. Rather than using a keyboard and a screen to display and view information, augmented reality creates the impression of bringing the required information into the real world. So a video of a soccer match appears to play on the wall of your living room, a meal recipe appears to float above your kitchen worktop or information about the sculptor is hovers beside the sculpture you are looking at through your phone's camera.

One other thing to bear in mind. Virtual reality (VR) is not the same as Augmented reality. Unlike AR, VR involves creating an entirely new digital world, to replace the real world and creating an illusion that the individual is present in the digital world. While VR is great for gaming, AR offers lots more opportunities to use the technology in a real world setting.

The HoloLens Explained

How it works

The HoloLens looks for all the world like a pair of Ski goggles ! Here's how it works.

Multiple cameras at the front and sides of the headset capture individual 120 degree views corresponding to your potential field of vision. These combine with sensors embedded in the HoloLens to send data into three processors, a CPU, a GPU (graphics processing unit) and a new HPU, (holographic processing unit). The HPU is a co-processor able to understand gestures, voice, position and mapping.

Essentially, HoloLens works by tricking the brain with light. The exact details are secret but chief inventor, Alex Kipman explained to Wired Magazine that it uses light generated in a so called 'light engine' within the headset. This light then enters the goggles’ two lenses, where it interacts with layers of blue, green and red glass until it hits the back of your eye. Getting the light to reach your eye at the right angle is key to generating the illusion of objects.

What it does

At it's most basic, HoloLens allows you to blend the digital world with the real world. Put the headset on and the technology tricks your eyes into thinking that you can see in the actual real world, digital images and objects provided through the HoloLens.

Here's an example. You're at home and you would like to watch a show on Netflix. You put on your headset, request the episode and point to a location for it to display, say a wall in your living room. The video seems to appear there as if by magic. Want to turn the sound up ? just adjust your headset. Want to make the screen bigger and another gesture will allow you expand the image.

What makes the HoloLens really useful is the ability to 'pin' an object.Maybe you're thinking of buying a new table for the dining room. You request an image through the headset which you can then can virtually position or 'pin' it to a specific location. Once 'pinned' you can walk around your room and view the table from all sides/angles in the context of the room.

And the benefits extend well beyond the home into the business world. Imagine you are an architect or a designer, you can pin an image of a building and get a full 360 degree view as you move around it.

Beyond that software designed to capture gesture information from the Hololens can allow you to interact with the pinned object(s). Car designers could for example use their hands to manipulate the curves of a car CAD model as they walk around it.

Here's a video from Micosoft showing what the HoloLens can do.

Why it's special

The HoloLens is special because (at this early stage) it looks better than anything else being developed by competitors, and it looks most likely to be used by 'real people'.

Remember, a lot of companies have been trying to crack the market for AR and VR. Google launched Google Glass, but the cost of the headset ($1500), its excessive 'geekiness' and privacy issues meant Google Glass never took off. Facebook paid $2 billion for VR head-set designer Oculus Rift but again we're waiting for Facebook to deliver a product. And Google are now trying another route by investing in AR start up, Magic Leap. Again no product.

Here's three reasons I like the HoloLens. First, early user reviews are good - the wide field of vision and the ability to 'pin' an object above all help. Second the headset promised by Microsoft is impressive - we're told to expect a standalone unit weighing only 400 grams. Third, and very importantly, Microsoft are expected to focus on home and work users. This means that the majority of use cases will be in private space.

The third point matters because as PC Magazine points out, once you start using a technology in public, there is a social context. That's what proved a critical problem for Google and led to the pejorative 'Glassholes' term used to describe early 'Glass' adopters. By focusing on home and work users, Microsoft will not be intruding on the privacy of third parties.

Whats next ?

For HoloLens to be a success, the product must get to market on time, it must work and must be available at a price point that users can afford. (Versions of the headset on show in January were clunky and still required users to wear a second device around their neck).

Then there is the 'ecosystem' that will need to grow up around the technology, especially the applications that developers will create to work with HoloLens. Expect to get a first idea of what's happening here when Microsoft holds its Windows 10 'Build' Conference in San Francisco at the end of April.

I'm always wary of making predictions, particularly when it comes to technology. We all laugh now at statements like ' there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home' or even '640k should be enough for anyone'. Let's not forget too that Microsoft has had some big product failures. Remember the Zune and the KIN phone which launched to much fanfare only to disappear off the market.

This time however may be different. Microsoft have come up with a truly exciting product in the 'HoloLens'. It has got off to a good start, it's ahead of the competition and it has the potential to open up a whole new world of augmented reality computing.

Perhaps HoloLens will be the product to finally put 40 year old Microsoft back at the heart of the hardware tech sector.