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

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

6 Thoughts I Had When I Strapped A HoloLens To My Face And Stared Into The Future.

After taking the HoloLens “mixed-reality” headset around the country to demo to eager developers, Microsoft is opening the doors to a much richer experience: a showroom, secreted on the fifth floor of Microsoft’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York, where developers can dabble with three versions of HoloLens in action. The rent is steep—the device carries a $3,000 price tag for the developer kit launching in Q1—but for the enterprise and software developers, jumping in early might pay off.

An overly eager Microsoft employee who is ostensibly paid to cheer me on is cheering me on as I run around the living room — sheepishly at first, and then with elementary school gusto — dodging, ducking. The three depict core use-cases of a holographic headset: using it to create virtual objects, à la Photoshop for the 3-D world; using it to display a holographic presentation, à la Powerpoint; and using it to play a holographic game—oh ho ho, Xbox.

So far, I’m doing just OK, though I’ve clearly made at least one significant tactical error: I forgot to take off my jacket, and now I’m soaking wet. It’s a stopgap between traveling demo shows and the development kits that Microsoft will begin selling early next year — and one more step toward turning HoloLens into a viable computing platform. A short refresher on HoloLens: it’s a surprisingly comfortable, ergonomic, and well-designed headset that slips on with just a few quick adjustments. Accompanied by a Microsoft representative, on Wednesday reporters were guided through an hour-long presentation and demo that ran the HoloLens through its paces.

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. When I visited the showcase earlier this week, Microsoft had set up what looked like a large trade show booth in a quiet upper floor of its recently opened Fifth Avenue store. Truthfully, it never occurred to me to remove my jacket, because I didn’t expect much from Microsoft’s HoloLens demo, which, starting today, will be open to registered developers who visit the New York flagship store.

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. The whole experience is presented like a tour: after a short introductory speech in a conference room, visitors are shuttled between three rooms, each with a unique demo.

In short, you can wander around the real world, seeing holograms that range from toolboxes to chat windows to spaceships placed all around you, albeit through a small portal. I’d seen earlier presentations on it and was relatively certain I’d shuffle about while some MS Paint graphics piddled around in my field of vision and a demo dude followed me around holding up cables like a bridesmaid holding up a train. The weirdest moment is HoloLens’ customary interpupillary distance (IPD) measuring ritual, where you’re given a card with a number to present at every station. That’s because before the demo, HoloLens, a pricey and as-of-yet-unreleased augmented reality headset that overlays graphics onto the physical world, felt like one more ambitious project destined to disappoint. And I’m still wowed by HoloLens, a mixed reality, some would say, augmented reality, experience that reminds you of virtual reality but is in reality quite different.

There’s nothing mystical about IPD — especially not to anyone who’s worn glasses — but especially after a detailed instruction video for putting on the headset, it drives home the idea that HoloLens is a precision tool. Microsoft representatives would not comment on battery life, but did emphasize that a single unit was used during three ten minute demo sessions with reporters. It seemed an attempt to lasso something amazing from the future and, with brute force, haul it into the present, and, as often happens in that process, most of the magic is stripped off, leaving you with something expensive, unwieldy, and ultimately a little bit useless (see: Google Glass). Microsoft has been letting internal developers show off little HoloLens experiments lately, but two of the three showcase demos have been in its lineup for months. The slate is carefully tuned to show off a range of capabilities, while apparently avoiding anything branded; you won’t find Trimble’s architecture modeling software or the NASA Mars visualizer, although Microsoft says the roster could change over time.

But here I am, standing crouched in the corner of Ikea Room, basically cowering before a horrific Queen Robot Bug that’s birthing irate baby bugs with alarming frequency. 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. HoloStudio is Microsoft’s holographic version of MS Paint, using a combination of “air taps” and voice commands to move and recolor objects in a scene. With HoloLens, Microsoft is making a play for first-mover advantage, and sending a signal that it sees augmented reality as a powerful business mover. Project X-Ray is both a fast-paced, controller-based game and an example of HoloLens’ room scanning options — in this case, you’re shooting at alien robots crawling out of your walls.

You might even be thinking Microsoft has HoloLens, Facebook has Oculus, and Google’s funding the Magic Leap—so that means all these guys are gonna duke it out with each other over who gets the right to put a computer on our faces? And that makes sense, considering that augmented reality is perhaps one of the most futuristic-sounding, edge-cutting projects a company can undertake — save making a car fly or basically anything Elon Musk dreams up. A voice guided me through tweaking a presentation about a new luxury watch, moving labels and gauging viewers’ interest in different sections by tracking their gaze (assuming, of course, that they’re also wearing HoloLens). The hope is that HoloLens will be used to develop and deploy prototypes, as well as a communication tool that helps share data and information between teams.

There’s no time to explore more than the most basic elements of each app, which means that it’s hard to tell how useful something like HoloStudio really is — it’s supposed to have all the options of a desktop paint app, but I’ve tried it twice and still never gotten further than rotating fish and spray-painting an X-wing fighter. Microsoft emphasizes storytelling as a compelling use for both business and educational institutions, and the HoloLens creation tools are intuitive and snappy in the demos I saw. 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. Before putting on a HoloLens headset, you’ll have to measure the distance between your pupils (this is standard operating procedure in the future, so just roll with it, OK?). 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.

It took maybe a dozen tries to put the headset on in a way that let me see clearly, but being able to do it made HoloLens feel a little more like a computer I could imagine using. A computer is exactly how Microsoft wants us to think of this, and the team seems at least a little irked whenever someone compares its $3,000 development kit to the $350 Oculus Rift DK2. Unlike smartphone-based VR headsets and computer-tethered rigs designed primarily for gaming, the HoloLens headset is a standalone Windows 10 computer. The Microsoft spokesperson wouldn’t confirm future plans, but it’s easy to see a future where subsequent iterations of the HoloLens serve as both an accessory to—and even a potential replacement for—the current Xbox. The experience of using them will probably be less flashy than the current showcase demos, because intuitively, any universal app would just be a flat image projected into the air instead of onto a monitor.

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. Microsoft has indicated that they’ll probably work with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which is a lot more prosaic than the Minority Report-esque air tap system. For now, IT folks will be encouraged to see that Microsoft has targeted HoloLens at the enterprise for a number of potentially powerful innovations, rather than getting overly infatuated with the consumer market—a tough sell for a big, heavy HMD. And while this may sound like unimpressed whining, the hard truth is that this undermines the experience just enough to make the headset feel like a work in progress rather than flawless tech. The good news is that at no point was my ability to see the rest of my surroundings cut off, which is important since I had to be able to see the real and virtual combined and, often, was walking around the room to see the 3D images from all sides.

Medical students could be guided through a medical procedure, while their professor monitors exactly what they’re seeing. (Case Western is working on this now.) Product teams could build a jet engine by manipulating a virtual replica, giving detailed feedback and minimizing the need for multiple, iterative prototypes. (Adobe is working on this now.) I was thinking of this as I explored that virtual product demo, fussing with machinery of an expensive watch. While trying to build a cartoon aquarium in a 3D design demo, I was routinely tucking my chin into my neck while shifting my pupils toward the sky and bending backwards at the waist.

Ideally, development kits will be widely available enough next year that would-be HoloLens developers can either buy or borrow one and experiment on their own time. I noticed the limitations of that during a demo for Project X-Ray, a game in which flying robots bust out of the (real) walls around you and fire lasers at your face. Or you can use an “air tap” in which you which you raise your hand with a fist about foot in front of you and tap down and then back up with a single finger, a gesture that performs the functions of a mouse click. 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.

Microsoft has successfully stripped HoloLens of any and all wires, making it an immersive experience that is by no means as spatially alienating as full VR. The hardware exposes nascent, if promising capability, but the most interesting facet of HoloLens is the interaction design—that’s where the bets are being made.

Simply put: There’s no way that normal humans in cluttered living rooms aren’t going to straight-up run into walls/stray toys/lamps/other humans playing a first-person alien bug shooter game. They’ve already come up with some very clever interactions, like gaze functioning as a mouse pointer: there’s a dot floating at the centerpoint of your vision, and to pick up or interact with any virtual object, you first must gaze directly at it, aligning a dot. To pick something up or otherwise make it do something, you “finger click” it, holding up your hand roughly in the shape of making a “Number 1″ gesture, then flicking your finger down.

This isn’t a HoloLens feature, it’s a calibration process, but I can say without any exaggeration whatsoever that it was — for lack of technical terminology — fucking awesome. 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. The tension in creating the right gesture is in inventing something like the finger click which is intuitive once taught—but also unlikely to ever happen by accident. It felt like the future had reached out, located the 12-year-old Charlie who lurks somewhere inside me — the one who aspired to be a T-800 from Terminator 2 — and told him “Anything’s possible!” before giving him a high-five and vanishing into thin air.

But the coolest feature was the ability to shrink a virtual object, play with it, copy and clone portions of it as you would a Photoshop image, and then make it spring back to its original size simply by saying “actual size.” Imagine reducing the floorplan of a room, rearranging everything at small scale, then instantly blowing it it back up to normal size, projected as a “hologram” right there in the room. To summon a menu, hold out a fist, with the back of your hand facing down, and quickly unfurl your fingers, almost like you’re revealing a hidden coin in the palm of your hand.

Just as there was once a race to define the most intuitive way to use a mouse cursor, so too will there be a race to define the most intuitive way to interact with virtual reality. 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. Later, when HoloLens summoned a high-resolution 3D moving map of the solar system before my eyes, I found myself staring in wonder at Pluto’s deeply peculiar orbit and shimmering asteroid belts engaged in an interstellar synchronized swim. 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.

A gorgeous Swiss watch appeared before me and split seconds later burst open into a three-dimensional cross section — its parts and gears suspended as if in zero gravity. Voiceover narration told me that such HoloLens visualizations will engage audiences like never before and determine what’s most interesting to them by tracking eye movement — provided they’re outfitted with the headsets.

For the moment, Microsoft isn’t saying which demos will be built into the wearable Windows 10 PC, though Microsoft reps told me it’s logical to expect a variety of experiences on HoloLens Development Edition to help developers understand what’s possible and inspire them to create their own apps. The consumer version, which doesn’t really even have a road map for launch yet, will presumably cost less, but unconfirmed rumors have it costing far more than an Xbox. “That’s a full Windows 10 computer,” my guides kept saying, pointing at my head, as if to remind me that this stuff isn’t cheap.

But it’s this anxiety, one fed by a conga line of failed products — from Zune to the disastrous Kin phone — that belie some of HoloLens’ promise. Like so much in tech these days (AI, self-driving cars, the Hyperloop), HoloLens occupies a peculiar purgatory between the ambitious and seemingly unlikely and that which is truly transformative.

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