Help! Microsoft Put a Holographic James Cameron in My Basement

There he is, in my basement, James “Titanic” Cameron, undersea explorer and digital-filmmaker extraordinaire.

Oh no, no. He’s not on my laptop screen. Resembling something between a Star Wars holo-projection and a Macy’s window display, he’s standing in front of my face on a virtual conference stage. When he turns around you can see the shine of his silver hair and the back of his black boots.

I should’ve seen him coming. Microsoft Corp. MSFT 2.15% sent me a box the size of a freight train. Inside was a virtual-reality headset from HP (along with a laptop to power it) and Microsoft’s own augmented-reality (aka mixed-reality) HoloLens 2 goggles. All so I could experience what the company calls “holoportation” at its Ignite conference, held virtually on Tuesday. Instead of a boring-old webcast, Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s AI and mixed-reality technical fellow, appeared with other guests, including Mr. Cameron, as 3-D holograms.

From my early experience, holoportation is quite awesome. It’s also not quite ready for you. I had to be hooked up to an HP laptop like some sort of marionette puppet to experience this. Then there’s the $3,500 HoloLens 2, which crushes my ears and still has too narrow a field of vision.

Still, Microsoft Mesh—the service that the company on Tuesday announced underlies that holograph experience—is a big step for the future of mixed reality, where digital objects meld with our real world.

With a virtual-reality headset and a virtual meeting platform like Spatial, you can meet up and collaborate with your colleagues as if you were in a real office space. WSJ’s Joanna Stern transformed into a holographic avatar and got in a virtual elevator to test it out. Photo illustration: Adam Falk

Mesh allows people in different physical spaces to collaborate in virtual environments on different types of devices and apps. Using Azure, Microsoft’s cloud-computing platform, developers add it to their apps. People using those apps could then create their own digital avatars and collaborate with others.

Think of it like signing into an app with Google, Facebook or Apple, only now your avatar is your identity. Whichever app you pop into, you’re the same digital hologram.

Virtual collaboration isn’t new. I’ve been experimenting with shared spaces in virtual reality throughout the pandemic. Sometimes, instead of joining a video call, I put on my Oculus Quest 2 headset and meet up with 3-D avatar versions of my colleagues in an app called Spatial. (The makers of Spatial even designed a virtual version of my WSJ elevator.) Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR, which is where today’s event was held, has virtual comedy shows and meetup spaces.

What Microsoft’s doing now, though, is different. First, the company aims to unify what’s a pretty fragmented space. No matter what headset (HoloLens or Oculus), laptop (Mac or PC) or mobile device (iOS or Android), you’ll be able to sign on and connect with other avatars.

Down the road, Microsoft wants to go beyond these avatars and turn us all into actual holograms. Most of these platforms leave you looking cartoony or deformed. But the ones on stage representing Mr. Kipman and Mr. Cameron looked like live 3-D video.

Joanna Stern, wearing a VR headset while in her basement, attended Microsoft’s virtual Ignite conference as a cartoon-ish avatar.

Photo: Joanna Stern/The Wall Street Journal

The process of creating those volumetric objects is early and expensive. The highest-end holograms require a facility like Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios, where you perform in front of a giant green screen, as 160 cameras record various angles. Mr. Kipman used a somewhat more affordable step-down: three $399 Azure Kinect DK depth cameras.

So yeah, it’ll take awhile for us to have our own holograms; plus, the hardware isn’t ready for consumers. I needed a good 30 minutes to set up the HP Reverb G2 headset to watch the presentation, and my HoloLens 2’s battery died in a meeting with another Microsoft executive last week.

Facebook Inc.’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 headset is the furthest along on these fronts, though it’s full VR, not augmented reality. Mr. Kipman says Microsoft’s working on getting the technology in its HoloLens, currently aimed at enterprise, to that consumer level.

“The technology is not ready—in terms of comfort, in terms of immersion, in terms of value—for consumers,” he said. “For consumers, you need glasses—socially acceptable glasses. I’m not going to be standing up on stage talking about consumers until we believe we have a headset that’s comfortable enough and immersive enough and socially acceptable enough.”

Even when that moment comes, Microsoft will likely have to fight for dominance with other giants with interests in this area, including Facebook and Apple Inc. And all those companies must answer one giant question: What’s the killer collaborative app? Here are some ideas:

Work Collaboration: Instead of a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting on your laptop, you pop into a virtual conference room with your holograph colleagues. In marketing? You all whiteboard your next big campaign ideas using digital pens and clip art. In industrial design? You pass around and review 3-D prototypes. In medical research? You review diagrams and 3-D organs.

This is where James Cameron fits in. He and nonprofit educational partner OceanX are using Microsoft Mesh to create a “holograph laboratory” on the OceanXplorer ship. They aim to collaborate virtually via labs around the world and work with 3-D holograms of the areas they explore.

Niantic previewed what a ‘Pokémon Go,’ using Microsoft Mesh, might look like.

Photo: Joanna Stern/The Wall Street Journal

Games: Pokémon, obviously. Mr. Kipman was joined on “stage” by John Hanke, CEO and founder of Niantic Inc., the company behind “Pokémon Go.” He showed off a concept version where Pokémon just appear right in front of you on the sidewalk.

Live Events: Microsoft’s event itself was the best demonstration of what this technology can unlock. As I sat in the audience as a box-faced avatar, waiting for the event to start, I overheard a man behind me mention to a virtual seatmate that he worked on headset hardware at Microsoft. It was like eavesdropping on a conversation at a real tech conference.

One day, I’ll go back to those conferences but certainly not at the same capacity and frequency I used to. I might opt to stay home because it’s easier. I’ll put on a sleek headset and holoport in. When that day arrives, holograms might be as normal as Zoom calls.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

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