​Microsoft HoloLens: What tech, business decision makers need to know

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hands on with Microsoft’s HoloLens Development Edition.

It’s been nearly a year since Microsoft surprised everyone by announcing the HoloLens, a sort of helmet-computer that projects virtual images on top of the real world around you. 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. 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. The category is so fresh and new that no one, even the people working on it, has any real idea how to classify it, or even knows where it will go next.

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. But when you try HoloLens and other similar gadgets, you can tell there’s a lot of potential to create a device that could once day eliminate the need for all the screens that surround us. 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. 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. 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. 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 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.

Microsoft missed out big time on mobile computing, so the hope is it can aggressively take on the next level of computing by putting prototypes in the hands of the right people right now. 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. 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. 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.

On Wednesday, I got a sneak peek at the same experience developers (who register to visit the Microsoft Store) will see when they strap on the HoloLens for the first time. It wasn’t quite as mind-blowing as the fully-immersive visuals you see with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but that’s not the point. 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). 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. I was expecting the crystal-clear images I’ve seen in VR headsets and a room full of virtual images displayed on the screen hovering over my eyes, just like you see in all those promotional videos from Microsoft. (I wasn’t allowed to take photos or video in my demo, so all the stuff you see here are just more promotional materials from Microsoft.) Instead, I was shocked by how narrow the field of view was.

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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. We’re still probably over a year away from a consumer version of the device, but developers will have to make a bunch of killer applications to convince people to shell out thousands of dollars for a computer you wear on your head. (That would explain why the company is putting so much effort into courting developers so early.) In the near term, Microsoft seems to be focused on enterprise applications for the HoloLens, which is why its early partners include groups like NASA and Volvo.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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