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Microsoft debuts Holodesk to fiddle with balls

Redmond boldly going where others have gone before

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Microsoft has released a video of what’s it’s calling a Holodesk – a 3D holographic display that allows users to virtually pick up and use software constructs such as balls and blocks.

The system, built by Microsoft Research in Cambridge, uses a webcam and Kinect technology to follow the user’s hands and face, adds a set of beam splitters to measure depth, then uses custom graphics algorithms to match the signals. The user has to look through a half-silvered mirror to see the images, and the whole thing is around the size of a small filing cabinet.

The technology for sensing motion and displaying such images is not new. The Israeli company Lumio demonstrated similar systems for virtual keyboards nearly ten years ago, and IBM is widely credited with something similar a decade before. But what makes this different is the sophistication of the process, the company says.

“For the record, the Holodesk isn’t the only 3D interaction experiment out there,” blogged Microsoft evangelist Steve Clayton. “But what sets it apart from the rest is the use of beam-splitters and a graphic processing algorithm, which work together to provide a more life-like experience.”

Based on the video of the unit in action, it’s certainly interesting stuff, but the movements are a little jerky and it clearly has occasional problems with placement. The ability to use physical objects as well as holographic ones, while maintaining the laws of physics in the simulations is interesting, but anyone expecting a full Star Trek experience is in for a major disappointment.

Microsoft envisions the system being used for gaming and telepresence, or even to develop and try out prototypes. But the hardware required to view the images is so cumbersome, and the touch controls insufficiently fine-grained, that El Reg suspects this one won’t be on your desktop any time soon.

That said, given the equipment’s size it might make a good video arcade game (for younger readers, these used to look like this.) ®

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