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Cool New Tech: Microsoft HoloLens

Updated on March 12, 2015

As a developer I’m always interested in finding the next big thing in technology to latch my imagination onto. As an upcoming Microsoft intern, I’ve been looking into the technologies the Washington-based giant’s been working on lately. The most obvious of these is Windows 10. There are many exciting new features coming up in Windows 10, such as Cortana, biometric authentication and, of course, how the platform will be consistent across mobile devices, from laptops, tablets, desktops, phones, Xbox One, and wearables. It’s this last group that I want to focus on, because it’s the most breakthrough technology I’ve seen since the Oculus Rift: Microsoft’s newly announced HoloLens.

In case you didn’t know, HoloLens is a transparent head-mounted display which functions as an augmented reality computing platform. What this means is that HoloLens can see everything that you are seeing and project holographic 3D images into your real environment. You can still see and hear everything that is actually around you, but you can also see and hear a virtual 3D environment overlaid on top of it. It’s not virtual reality, because virtual reality seeks to replace the environment around you with a digital one – you cannot see what is actually around you and thus, if walking around, you would need to use it in a large, wide-open environment lest you walk into things. HoloLens, on the other hand, seamlessly merges with your office, your bedroom, or wherever you happen to be, allowing you to be physically present in your surroundings and also virtually present in a holographic world.

Microsoft HoloLens

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Some of the other coolest aspects of HoloLens? It’s controlled by gestures and voice commands. In all of the demo videos I have not seen a single example of a user needing to touch any part of the device to interact with it. It’s also completely standalone. No wires, no phones necessary. And the speakers can make sound come from any direction, to completely immerse you in your virtual environment. It’s also built directly into Windows 10, on every version and every device. What this means for its integration with other devices or standard Windows 10 apps remains to be seen, but it’s a promising aspect.

So why is this so revolutionary? Besides Oculus Rift, comparisons can’t help but be made to Google Glass, which fell far short of what it intended to do. Glass intended to take a small list of the things you can do on your smartphone or tablet and integrate them into a tiny display mounted in front of your face instead. The functionality was too limited, the gestures and use of it too awkward, and the experience too far removed from your physical surroundings. Users would alienate others by the way they needed to tune out the real world in order to interact with Glass. Furthermore, Glass was intended to be used on the go, when out and about. This didn’t help the fact that the public was not ready to see others walking around wearing Glass. Having had friends with Glass, I can say that their interactions with it looked awkward, not intuitive, and the screen itself was difficult to focus on, and tiny.

HoloLens is different in many important ways. Besides the 360 degrees immersion and the ability to be present in both the virtual and physical worlds at once, perhaps the most significant is that HoloLens is meant to be used at home or in your private office, for work or entertainment that would normally be private anyway. This avoids the social stigma of wearing a head mounted display in public. But far more intriguing than where it is meant to be worn is what HoloLens can do.

Microsoft HoloLens in Action

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For example, let’s take a look at Microsoft’s partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to create OnSight. OnSight is a software tool that enables NASA scientists to view and interact with the surface of Mars in entirely revolutionary ways. They can walk around in the environment, see their surroundings as though actually standing on Mars, and use gestures and commands to tell the real-world rovers on Mars to gather samples, explore terrain, and etc. Think this is a long time away? Think again. Rovers enhanced with OnSight technology will be in use on Mars by this summer.

Now think about designers and engineers creating a new product. They can build a 3D model of the product using HoloLens, can walk around it to view it in life-size 360 degrees, can color, resize, and alter it in real-time, can share it and collaborate, and then, when they are done, they could send the model to a 3D printer and have a physical model made. I’m not actually sure that this last will be possible, but I can’t see why not. In any case it won’t really add that much value to have a tangible, physical model when they have a much more interactive digital model already. But how cool would it be to be able to create a customized plastic toy for your kid?

Next let’s think about how consumers will use HoloLens. Clearly we can see the applications for scientists and engineers, but how will the everyday user interact with HoloLens?

Imagine the pipes in your kitchen sink have broken, and you have no idea how to fix them. Your dad is a plumber, but he lives a thousand miles away. You could call a plumber to come and fix it, but that could be expensive. Isn’t there some way your dad could help you fix the plumbing from where he’s at?

Yes. Using HoloLens your dad could see everything that you are seeing and highlight and point to things to step by step walk you through the repair. You’d have colored arrows and other markers appearing directly on the pipes in front of you, telling you exactly what to do. Generalize this situation to any repair, any job, any difficult or new task. Doing an oil change yourself. Changing a lightbulb. Cutting someone’s hair. Following a recipe. Changing a diaper. Changing a flat tire. As a side note, imagine how integration with medical technology could allow HoloLens to walk surgeons through surgeries, help dentists pull teeth, and etc.

Possible Applications of HoloLens

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HoloLens will also be useful for avid gamers, but in a safe and interactive way that Oculus Rift is not. Imagine a Minecraft world seamlessly integrated into your living room. There is a herd of sheep on your coffee table, a waterfall cascading off of your couch, and your house is built on the very top of a mountain which just so happens to also be the top of your sofa. You are fully aware of everything and everyone around you, yet simultaneously submersed in a world of your own building.

What about those people for whom repairs and recipes are a disaster to be avoided, and games are not a lifestyle choice? Don’t worry. Everyday apps you use on your phone, tablet, or computer will be integrated with voice and gesture commands into HoloLens, so you can watch Netflix on your ceiling while lying in bed, or Skype with your cousin from out-of-state while making coffee. Imagine photo editing software without even needing a screen or stylus. Imagine browsing the web or watching YouTube while walking on a treadmill, no tablet or earbuds necessary.

Of course it’s still early to speculate about how useful or well-adopted Microsoft’s HoloLens will be. But the universal apps and direct integration of HoloLens into Windows 10 could mean that developers will find it easier and more painless to develop apps for new and innovative platforms than ever before, possibly even the holographic. And HoloLens has applications to everyday work and play for everyone. It’s a platform intended to make the things you already do easier and more interactive.

Minecraft as seen Through HoloLens

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Microsoft HoloLens

Do you think HoloLens will be the next big thing? Or will it fall short of its expectations, just like Google Glass?

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