How HoloLens opened my eyes to a new world of work and fun
Virtual reality has been the big story of 2015, but it has one major drawback. You have no idea what’s in front of you. Or behind you. Or just to your left. With Microsoft’s HoloLens, on the other hand, you still see the familiar world – but it becomes a delightful, high-fidelity playground, classroom or even a remote work site.
I’ve no doubt games will be the first wave of apps to capture people’s imagination. Imagine stepping into another world; drop a crumpled ball of paper on the floor and it blows a hole through to yet another dimension, where paper birds fly through paper clouds. It’s as charming and delightful as it sounds. Even when that world is very basic – looking more like a tablet app than Avatar – being inside a fantasy world is an enchanting experience.
But for me, it’s the fact that HoloLens will also be useful for work, and for interacting with physical as well as digital objects, that makes it such an amazing, unlimited opportunity.
Take architects. Perhaps they need to see whether a building is being put up the way it’s designed. Or builders need to see how the designs fit into the physical space they’re hauling bricks and planks into. In these scenarios, having HoloLens paint the virtual design over the real world is ideal.
Why? Because the on-site builder can see exactly where the door is supposed to go, and the architect back in their office can see what the builder sees (such as a pillar that’s preventing a door from opening).
The architect can put on a HoloLens to look at the site remotely, or even simply watch video from the builder’s HoloLens on their own screen; there’s a visual beam that makes it clear what the other person is looking at. Being able to share what you see without trying to manage a camera makes it much easier to collaborate at a distance.
This mixed reality has far-reaching potential; as a very basic example, imagine seeing annotations on your bicycle the first time you need to change a tyre. Or, in industry, how about using predictive analytics to paint each machine on a factory floor with the date that they next need maintenance?
The key to all these scenarios is that it’s much easier to see what will be affected by a change when you can see it in context, rather than looking at a list and trying to match that to the real world in your head.
Take smart devices. Today you either have a whole interface on the device, complete with a screen and controls – which doesn’t make sense for a smart lock or a window-blind motor – or you create an app, meaning users have to look at a different device.
HoloLens can paint the interface in mid-air next to the device (such as the robot above), giving you controls that are large enough to see clearly and work with. You can keep looking at the device to make sure the controls are actually doing what you want.
Checking when your robot vacuum cleaner is scheduled to start usually means crouching down to look at the screen; it would be much easier to tap it from across the room through your HoloLens, and see a calendar with a countdown timer showing when the cleaning starts. Want the robot to avoid the plant in the corner of your room? Tapping to set virtual fences is easier than trying to position an infrared wall in just the right place.
Crucially, creating all this won’t be nearly as difficult as you might expect. Building apps for HoloLens is like building any Modern Windows app. The Windows 10 universal app SDK supports HoloLens, and there are plenty of high-level methods and objects that simplify working with some of Windows Holographic’s more complex features.
For example, one object handles converting the direction a user’s head is facing into a vector, which can be passed to a method that tests to see if the gaze vector intersects any virtual objects.
If you were working directly with the HoloLens sensors, you’d have to write code to detect head position, and then convert that into a view direction, before handling object occlusion in 3D. That’s a lot of complex 3D maths – but with the HoloLens tooling in Windows 10, it turns out to be only a couple of lines of C# code to find out when the user is looking at something in your virtual world.
Adding a keyword for voice control is just one line of code, and you can attach voice and gesture controls to individual objects or to the whole holographic world, so making a powerful interface doesn’t have to be complicated.
Things can be simplified even further using tools such as Unity, which supports the HoloLens as a camera viewpoint.
You can construct a 3D environment in Unity, attach a few C# scripts, and then export the whole project as a Modern Windows app, ready to compile and deploy from Visual Studio. There’s no need for specialised tooling, or for non-standard languages and toolkits, making it very easy to pick up HoloLens and have an app running in a day or so.
Mastering it is another story, though. Building coherent and comprehensive 3D environments requires more design skills than a traditional desktop app, so you’ll need to be prepared to work closely with 3D artists.
As well as apps for work and play, I expect to see lots of holographic apps that focus on one thing – such as 3D weather forecasts or image galleries – and that live in the mixed reality HoloLens paints around you, the way you’d put a calendar on the wall or a holiday souvenir on your desk.
The initial HoloLens might be just a little too big and intrusive to wear for hours during the day, but in use I found it remarkably comfortable. You can still work at your computer or look at your phone without taking it off, because HoloLens doesn’t cut you off from the world the way VR headsets do.
The HoloLens isn’t something you’ll put on for a single task and then take straight off again. HoloLens adds an extra layer to the world around you, which might be a huge video screen on the wall, a virtual world you step into for remote work, controls for objects around you, or extra gadgets and tools to scatter around you. It’s such a seductive and immersive experience that I missed it as soon as I took it off.