Microsoft’s HoloLens And The Future Of Technology

Last week, I received a personal invitation to a private HoloLens demo at the Microsoft flagship store in Midtown Manhattan. For those of you that might not be familiar with this device or its origins, I’ll provide a bit of context.

As you can imagine, technology is always evolving. The pace of evolution has accelerated tremendously in my lifetime. This past century included the groundbreaking inventions of the telephone, the television, cellular devices, smartphones and tablets. Today’s largest areas of innovation involve adding intelligence to appliances and accessories that were previously more limited. Right now, we are awfully close to seeing the technology of science fiction books and movies become fact. There are driverless cars, an “internet of things” (which includes home automation), handheld gimbals and UAV’s (AKA drones) as well as tremendous advances in wearable technology like smart watches and headsets.

The Microsoft HoloLens combines many of the advances in personal computing with the currently trending interest in the concepts of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). The HoloLens offers “mixed reality” though, which combines the best of both worlds. Virtual Reality devices remove you from the context of your actual setting and Augmented Reality devices add additional information or data to your actual setting. A “mixed reality” device allows you to interact with virtual objects in the context of your actual setting.

Perhaps I’m easily impressed, but this “mixed reality” concept is mind-blowing and the Microsoft HoloLens does a pretty good job of showcasing some of the possibilities.

The device is far from perfect, but I understand that this is early days and expecting perfection at this stage would be unrealistic. That being said, here is a quick recap on my demo experience and thoughts.

I arrived at the store for my noon appointment and was shown to the third floor and greeted by a kind lady named Kendra. She sat me down in a small theater and showed me a video that covered the basics — how to put on the device and how to interact with the device. After watching the video, she brought me to a room where I was to experience the first of three demonstrations.

First up was the HoloStudio demo, where we would be “building 3D in 3D”. The room felt like the waiting room of a doctor’s office, but that didn’t really bother me. Once the specialist slid open the cabinet and removed the HoloLens, I didn’t care about much else. I just gazed over with boyish amazement. He brought it over to me and showed me how to get it on. The device never quite sat comfortably on my head, but I proceeded anyway. This demo was meant to show how one can use the HoloLens to design, adjust, and interact with a 3d object — which can then be exported or printed! Interaction with the object (which was a sign, for the purposes of this demo) were limited to the “air tap” — a gesture where one places their hand about a foot in front of the HoloLens and makes a tapping motion with their index finger. I would have loved to have had a wider range of gesture, but again, it is early yet. While this particular demo wasn’t as amazing as it could have been, I will keep coming back to my thesis — this technology does a great job of showing the possibilities. Imagine a world where you can walk into your new home and after taking a moment to use the “spatial mapping” feature, you can start to virtually arrange your furniture and fixtures.

The second demo was related to gaming. I was handed a clicker that I would use as my trigger while playing “Robo Raid”. I’m not a big gamer, but this was easily my favorite demo of the day. At any moment, a crack or hole could emerge in any of the four walls around me. Using my gaze, I would have to track small, agile spiders and scorpion-looking robots around the room. Once my gaze was locked in, I could use the clicker to fire a lazer and blow them up. Although the game was pretty simple, it was a lot of fun.

The third demo was meant to showcase “holographic storytelling”, or marketing and presentation applications. In this demo, I had the chance to see a deconstructed luxury watch with various informational tidbits attached to specific points on the product. It’s not hard to envision a room full of executives looking over a new product presentation in this way.

All in all, I walked out impressed by the technology. I think Microsoft has done a pretty good job with this first iteration. The demo’s could have been more creative, but they picked 3 practical, easy-to-grasp applications. I don’t blame them for that. There are definitely improvements that can be made. The fitting mechanism isn’t very intuitive and at no point during any of my three demo’s did I ever feel like the device was properly secured. Additionally, the holographic field of view is a bit narrow and as a result, it prevents full immersion. I’m confident that both of these areas can be quickly improved in future versions of the product. I’ll admit that I was also put off by the lack of a headphone jack. The built-in speakers do a great job of providing 3d sound, but there is unavoidable audio spillover to anyone nearby. To me, that could severely limit the settings in which one could (politely) use audio on their HoloLens. After all, I live in New York City and we’ve all taken a moment to question how someone could think it’s okay to listen to their music without headphones on the subway.

One of the biggest tests for me was the ability to lock a virtual object at a precise three-dimensional coordinate in space. During the first demo, I was able to place the sign in space within the center of the room. Once placed, I could turn my head in any directon and move around. Each time I turned back to the sign, it stayed perfectly and precisely still. I’d say they passed this test with flying colors.

As I mentioned above, we are living in one of the most exciting eras of technology. The areas of innovation that I mentioned above are incredibly intriguing on their own, but my mind can’t help look ahead. It’s only a matter of time before more of these areas start to converge. We already have first person view (FPV) racing with drones, where the pilot wears a VR headset to simulate the effect of being seated in the cockpit. How long is it before my HoloLens-type device is linked into my home automation? Imagine a world where I can set my gaze on my Sonos speakers and gesture to interact with the device from across the room.

This just scratches the surface of what the future may bring, but it’s quite fun to think about nonetheless. Do you find the current pace of innovation to be exciting? Scary? A bit of both? Let me know below!