10 Reasons Why Microsoft’s New HoloLens Could Change the Future of Product Design

It’s no secret that the HoloLens was among one of the most exciting tech announcements within the past year — if not years — when it was unveiled by Microsoft earlier this week at their Windows 10 event. The augmented reality device, which some may confuse as a virtual reality device, aims to blend the real with the virtual in what Microsoft is calling Holographic Computing. Microsoft’s goal with the device is to not merely create another piece of hardware kit; but rather, lift everything that we do on two-dimensional screens into the real world with an immersive blended reality experience.

“We envisioned a world where technology could become more personal — where it could adapt to the natural ways we communicate, learn, and create,” said Microsoft, regarding the holographic computing experience. “Where our digital lives would seamlessly connect with real life.”

We’ve been hearing marketing copy such as the above for years — at least dating back to the original iPhone — however this time around, Microsoft is actually presenting it in a context that makes sense; there is no tablet, television, monitor, smartphone or external hardware necessary other than the ‘invisible’ headset experience. This is real life; just simply…enhanced.

An interactive 3D model of Microsoft’s HoloLens (Sketchfab)

But just like any other modern piece of hardware, its applications will be specific to a multitude of users and it’s still too early to tell how it will be adopted. Similar to how an iPad might spend its entire lifespan bolted to a repurposed wood countertop as a checkout in a trendy coffee shop or strapped into a portfolio notebook for a construction site project manager, the HoloLens may only be used for a specific purpose depending on who the end user is rather than being an “always-everywhere-everything” device like Google Glass wanted to be.

But for those who are used to working in 3D, how might a holographic computing experience enhance their workflow? Is it possible that the HoloLens could overcomplicate existing experiences and end up gathering dust next to the robot desk toys? What about using it for specific design tasks rather than going in all-or-nothing?

Here, we’ve taken a look at ten possible uses for the HoloLens in the realm of product design — ranging from design education through to client presentations — based on what we know already.

Live 3D Modeling

This one might be a bit obvious, but it’s important nonetheless. It is also one of the applications used in Microsoft’s marketing video for the HoloLens. To put it simply, the addition of holographic computing overlaid on real-world objects means that designers will be able to create virtual models based off of real-time scans of existing physical objects. For CAD designers, this could mean sculpting a base form for a computer mouse design out of modeling clay and instantly creating a wireframe to manipulate digitally before sending the digital mockup into SolidWorks for a manufacturable prototype. Rather than 3D scanning, cleaning up backgrounds or otherwise bouncing through multiple hoops that we are currently doing today, the virtual holographic overlays will allow for seamless and clean iterations.

Client/Colleague Interaction

We’ve already become accustomed to using virtual meeting software including GoToMeeting, Skype and Google Hangouts for years now, but the experience is rarely as seamless as their marketing videos make it out to be. Between spotty connections, poor sound quality, sub-par lighting and less-than-desirable backgrounds, virtual meetings are still a work in progress. However if done correctly, the HoloLens/Skype experience that Microsoft wants you to have could revolutionize the future of virtual meetings with holographic explanatory gestures and split-screen viewing.

Virtual and Collaborative Rapid Prototyping

For teams that wear the HoloLens and are collaborating in a ‘war room’ or other project-specific brainstorming table, the use of HoloLens means that they can put 3D models into context on a table where the team can iterate on virtual prototypes in-context rather than through 2D imagery. When combined with a Cloud-based CAD package that allows for all team members to become involved, this means that a team of 12 designers and engineers could all be looking at the same model on a conference table while simultaneously making adjustments in real-time while discussing it. We’ve seen similar augmented reality applications with tablets — such as the augmented reality feature for SolidWorks’ E-Drawings app — however it is restricted to an iPad screen and relies on a QR code…which isn’t always reliable.

Virtual and Interactive Brainstorming Whiteboards

It’s not uncommon for designers and engineers to have multiple monitors displaying different information at any given time…particularly when they’re seeking form inspiration or need to immediately reference multiple pieces of information while developing a design. With the HoloLens, a user could rapidly switch between windows of whiteboard diagrams, inspiration photo boards, user personas and other forms of both qualitative and quantitative research at any given moment…placed around them in their own holographic field. In other words, an entire asset package for a project could be laid out as a sort of ‘virtual carousel’ where they can reference a piece of information just by looking in a particular direction. Additionally, design research could forever be changed as archives of locations can be accumulated over time for experiencing virtually.

Projection-Guided Sketching

As great as it is to start a round of hand sketches with a blank piece of paper, things can get messy quickly. With projection-guided sketching, a user could project a virtual perspective grid for rapid visualization without the need for a straight edge, primitive forms could be projected across a page for virtual tracing and previous iterations of sketches or existing 3D models could be projected onto a page for rapid tracing and modifications.

Design for Repairability

As consumers wise up to fixing their own products using various methods of localized manufacturing (particularly desktop 3D printing), companies can sell their products with additional tutorials featuring virtual holographic instructions. While there will always be planned obsolescence built into products, the fine line between upgrading a product and fixing one is slowly blurring. One of the best ways for companies to stay relevant in an open source and “sharing” world is to join the pact and create their own high-quality videos that walk users through a repair process. The videos could also include the virtual models of a necessary part that can be directly sent to a 3D printer or desktop CNC at a set cost…ensuring that a company can still turn a profit for selling replacement parts but cheaper than it would be to hire a dedicated repair person. For companies that build products that are made to be assembled at home — such as IKEA — this opens the door for more complicated products that feature more in-depth assembly instructions or an entirely revamped user experience design altogether.

Full-Preview Product Data Management (PDM)

Although the option to have file versions saved to the Cloud automatically has been in existence for awhile now, the experience of moving from one file to the next with thumbnail previews can be a cumbersome experience…particularly if a user is just entering in on the project and hasn’t been a part of its full-development process. With the HoloLens, it would be possible to liberate the files from their tiny thumbnail previews and project them in full-size view…which could then be swiped or pulled like a virtual version of a horizontal ‘The Price is Right’s Big Wheel’…albeit with highlighted changes and immediate 3D viewing capabilities. If a user finds the file version they want to work on, bringing it in front and center to further iterate on could be as simple as a “Parting the Red Sea” arm gesture.

Expanded User Interfaces

Let’s back up for a minute here and assume that a user is dedicated to their 27" monitor and has no intention of ever leaving their traditional CAD computing experience…fair enough. What the HoloLens could offer however, is expanded real estate off of the side of the screen. This would essentially mean that no longer are you required to compromise modeling area real estate with where you keep your toolbars or history tree…the entire screen could become your modeling area while your toolbars rest around the outside edge of your monitor. Due to the luxury of space, this could also mean that tool bars could be enlarged or custom-placed based on their usage. For anybody that uses toolbar-intensive programs like After Effects on a laptop for finishing up their presentations, this could be huge.

The Future of Shop Class

Thanks to the HoloLens/Skype integration, the future of industrial design and mechanical engineering education might forever be changed. No longer will students be restricted to books and traditional video for learning how to navigate the prototyping workshop (although they should still soak up as many books as possible), but for more hands-on applications…such as learning how to use a lathe or even mill a simple 1" x 1" x 1" aluminum cube in Industrial Design 101, industry experts can develop virtual holographic explanatory videos that take students on a step-by-step breakdown of building a physical object. It could be argued that one shouldn’t use “holographic computing” while operating a heavy piece of machinery, but the education can be tailored around a “watch first, then do” teaching method. To take things a step further, examples could be included with each project that can be automated on a 3D printer or CNC mill for a student to compare their manual results to the intended output.

The Design of the HoloLens Itself

Perhaps most importantly, is that the HoloLens doesn’t shut a user off from their existing environment…it merely enhances their reality. While the Oculus Rift completely shuts a user off from their surrounding environment and Google’s Glass acts as a sort of extension of your smartphone, the HoloLens offers a full-powered Windows 10 experience that keeps a user grounded in reality. This means having the ability to maintain eye contact when working with others, looking out the window every now and again, and ultimately just simply “being” in the real world with an enhanced perspective.

It’s still very early to determine just how the HoloLens will integrate itself into today’s computing experience, but when considering its potential, it’s hard to not imagine what the future of holographic computing might mean to those who are ultimately among those responsible for shaping what our future looks like.

For more blasts of intensely cool product design and technology, we look at what’s going on in the world of 3D, splashes of business insight, dang cool manufacturing methods and tech into the mix over at SolidSmack.

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