Developers, meet your HoloLens: A tour of Microsoft’s new developer showcase

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hands on with Microsoft’s HoloLens Development Edition.

It’s been nearly a year since we first strapped on a prototype, and as the tech goliath prepares to unleash a first batch of units to developers in the coming months, I was invited to check out just how far the technology has come. That’s why Microsoft is launching the HoloLens Developer Experience Showcase, a two month hands-on event next door to its flagship store in Manhattan.

I should be clear: I tried a version of the headset that’s very similar to what will ultimately ship—for $3000!—but as always, no gadget is final until you’re pulling it out of the box. We’ve run down how HoloLens works with an in-depth hands-on earlier this year, explained why it isn’t a gimmick, and told you when the dev kit arrives, but it’s worth repeating that HoloLens isn’t virtual reality.

But what makes this scene remarkable, and really cool, is that the battleground is an actual physical space inside a room at Microsoft’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City. I’m being treated to a demonstration of Microsoft HoloLens, the Windows 10 based holographic computing system that I first got an early glimpse of last January. Microsoft had invited me on Tuesday to the fifth floor of its new store for a special preview of what will be an ongoing, by appointment-only HoloLens Showcase for developers. You look around a real room you’re in and select holographic images that appear in your goggles by hovering the cursor in the middle of your field of vision over the object. HoloLens presents a virtual projection of computer-generated “holograms” that look and act like they’re part of the real world and may or may not look like the latest renderings from Redmond.

And there are still a few pitfalls that still exist: The field-of-vision is still narrow, meaning you can only see holograms directly in front of you. Digital objects take on an expansive sense of scale and depth because you can move around them and view them from different angles, with their shadows reacting to the lighting. The headset still feels a bit top-heavy, and the adjustment wheel on the strap that goes around the back of your head snags your hair while you rotate it to tighten the thing. My experience, and the ones most developers will see in the store, was designed to show off the presentation, building and more immersive capabilities of HoloLens.

The outer one can adjust up and down and closer and further away from you face and the inner one has a tightening ring so it can clamp down securely on your noggin. The headgear was connected to a box hanging around my neck that apparently contained all the computing power required to make this bit of gee-wizardry possible.

In the game, enemy alien robots explode through the real walls in the room in AR, leaving you to physically scramble around the room to track them down, physically maneuvering to avoid their beams. In one of the demos I experienced back then, a woman appeared in a window laid in space over the real physical objects of a room and by effectively reaching out into my world to draw arrows and diagrams, helped me install a light switch.

Unlike smartphone-based VR headsets and computer-tethered rigs designed primarily for gaming, the HoloLens headset is a standalone Windows 10 computer. There were a couple moments when I felt like the image signal flowing before my eyes was kind of weak because the AR images were kind of faint and flickery. Before I could even put it on, a Microsoft employee used a pupilometer to measure the distance between my pupils; whenever a final HoloLens version is released to consumers, such pupil measuring capabilities will be built in. You interact with it in three ways: By using your gaze as a mouse-pointer for digital objects, by making speech commands, and by pointing your index finger.

Granted, the action was all extremely frantic: Enemies buzzed around me constantly and quickly, which required actual dodging and hopping and pivoting to parry their unending sortie. In fairness, the game was just revealed back in October, and it’s the newest of the three demos, so it’s understandable that it’s less polished than the rest. You can view holographic objects from various angles and distances, just like physical objects, but they do not offer any resistance if you come in direct contact.

Next up, Microsoft showed me a demo of what it calls “holographic storytelling.” The idea here is that you can replace boring PowerPoints with holograms. (How appropriate for Microsoft!) In the demo, I stepped into a fictional boardroom pitch for a luxury watch. Microsoft also sees HoloLens making the process of designing and printing 3-D objects a snap, which could help push that technology further into the mainstream.

When a 3D representation of our solar system appeared before me I was able to walk around and through it and even look at it from below to see it in a way I had never before. In the “HoloStudio” demo, you can place virtual objects in a real-world environment to visualize your remodeling or redecorating before doing any heavy lifting.

I finally got some virtual hands-on time with HoloStudio, a 3D design tool that lets you build 3D environments and even out put them on 3D printers and VR platforms. Now imagine how a real watch designer might use such a holographic presentation to explain and show off features, and even learn through “heat maps” which parts of the watch viewers gazed at most often, adjusting the presentation (quite literally) on the fly.

It’s free, and the three-part demo takes about an hour, but Microsoft says the waiting list for the showcase is already a couple hundred developers deep. But on this day, I had the most fun combatting those aliens in the Project X-Ray game, so codenamed because of that x-ray feature that let me see through the actual walls of the room—at least they appeared to be the actual walls. Using that information, HoloLens let me place a virtual sign on the wall, create 3D fish and even spray paint Star Wars X-Wing fighter that I’d placed at my feet.

And in no small part, Microsoft also hopes it inspires developers to fork over the $3,000 for the HoloLens Development Edition headset, which starts shipping early next year. Interacting with most of HoloStudio menus and objects was usually a combination of looking at what I wanted to manipulate — basically visually positioning my cursor, which was almost never an arrow — and then tapping in the air with one finger to select. For example, you’ll be able to stick your homemade AR sign on a wall next to a real-life painting, or on an odder shape, like the top of an end table or the side of a sofa.

Without a doubt, the best part of my demo suite was Project X-Ray (see photo above), a mixed-reality game that blends your room with attacking alien robots. It’s just a different kind of fun to see bloodthirsty extraterrestrials orbiting your buddy’s head in real life, or plowing through the family portrait hanging on your parents’ foyer wall. I’ve truly never played a video game like Project X-Ray before, and so long as Microsoft can make the experience glitch-and-gimmick free, the creative opportunities for developers are limitless. Imagine swinging an AR golf club in your backyard and seeing a holographic ball rocket into your annoying neighbor’s window, or setting off holographic fireworks into a night sky. And the quality of the holograms themselves, as well as the accuracy of their placements in the rooms, were at times unreliable and inconsistent, so that needs work.

Plus, HoloLens will only be available to developers and commercial buyers in North America for $3,000 a pop in quarter one of 2016, so it’ll be a while before it’s even available to consumers like you and me.

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