When Microsoft HoloLens was first unveiled last year, and then subsequently launched to avid developers in March this year, there was much speculation about how expensive it was and why it would never take off in the mainstream VR/AR space.
While that may still be true because of its price point, Microsoft HoloLens is NOT your run-of-the-mill VR headset. It doesn’t just allow you to experience a virtual world. What it does is immerse you in an interactive environment where you can create, visualize and manipulate virtual objects in a re-created real-world environment of your choice. And it’s called holographic computing.
Microsoft describes HoloLens as “the first self-contained, holographic computer, enabling you to engage with your digital content and interact with holograms in the world around you.”
This alone is a massive differentiator because you are no longer the observer, but a participant. To draw a loose analogy, think of the difference between watching a 3D movie and actually being able to physically interact with the characters in that movie.
That’s just one of the things that sets HoloLens apart from the crowd of VR headsets on the market.
How Does Microsoft HoloLens Work?
Such capability requires a software platform that can perform the complex computations required to give you such an experience. That’s what Windows Holographic is all about, and it’s based on the Windows 10 API.
Microsoft Holographic works by enabling applications to put virtual objects and live environments together so the user perceives them as sharing the same environment. Having their brain thus “fooled”, the user is able to experience a very unique perspective that is 100% virtual but “looks, sounds and feels” 100% physical.
And all of this is done in the UWP environment using Windows Holographic Platform APIs that allow the developer to create such interactive environments quickly and easily. Holographic also provides an augmented-reality platform on which Universal Apps can run. The experience is then delivered to HoloLens through the medium of Xbox One, PCs and mobile devices running Windows 10.
Is HoloLens a New Technology Development?
By no means! HoloLens was in development for five years before being unveiled to the public at Build 2015. But its real history goes back to 2007 because this was the original pitch for what later became the Kinect technology platform.
Though Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition was classed as “consumer-ready” when shipping started in March 2016 launch, HoloLens chief inventor Alex Kipman clearly said that there would only be a consumer release when the market was ready for it.
What Can HoloLens Do?
One of the well-known capabilities of HoloLens is the ability to bring the Xbox gaming experience into a virtual world. When it shipped, the Developer Edition originally came with three pre-loaded games, and now you can stream a number of Xbox One games to HoloLens.
There’s also Skype for HoloLens, where two developers can get on a call with Skype and then share their HoloLens creations with each other just as if they were sitting together in the same room.
There’s a shared virtual space where either party can make drawings, share photos and files and do a lot more. With your hands freed up, you can manipulate physical objects while talking to the other person on a video call. It’s all within your field of vision, and with air-tap, bloom and other commands, as well as with the help of gaze tracking, you can seamlessly communicate with them on in a virtual space shared only between the two of you.
What are Some of the HoloLens Applications Under Development?
Since the Universal Windows app environment is relatively new, you’re not going to see millions of apps. However, there is a considerable bank of Universal applications that you can tap into in order to fully explore this mixed reality environment. Here are some of the best use cases we’ve seen, as showcased by Microsoft…NASA recreating a Mars environment, case studies with Volvo and AutoDesk, etc.
Walking on Mars with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)
Case Study: Volvo
Case Study: AutoDesk – Fusion 360
Japan Airlines at Worldwide Partner Conference 2016
These are just the early applications that Microsoft and its partners have been developing. That partnership program extends across multiple industries in several parts of the world. As you can see, most of it involves training and education around environments that would normally be hard to access or expensive to train with.
The consumer use case is certainly there, but the applications are primarily institutional and commercial at this point.
As the technology matures, we should be seeing an evolution not only in the number of applications made available on the Windows Store for HoloLens, but also evolutionary changes in the capabilities of Windows Holographic.
Spending $3,000 on a Development Edition or $5,000 on the Commercial Suite might not be the best use of your money just to play Xbox games, but as time progresses, we hope to see Microsoft bringing down the cost of production significantly enough to make it a meaningful consumer item.
You could cite the Oculus Rift as a more affordable version of HoloLens, but it just doesn’t compare. Apart from the obvious difference of Oculus providing a wraparound environment as opposed to the walk-around one experienced with HoloLens, there are several other limitations as well.
This is holographics – the real interacting with the virtual, and not just the real observing the virtual. There’s a big difference here that a lot of people aren’t aware of.
As such, I see Microsoft being years ahead of anyone else in this space. The kind of moat they have in this area can be compared with the lead that Amazon has over Oracle in cloud infrastructure, or the one IBM has over everyone else in the field of cognitive computing and predictive analytics.
I’m committed to learning as much as I can about the progress of HoloLens through these exciting early stages, and then sharing that with you so you, too, can appreciate the kind of massive potential this technology holds for our future.
Imagine every school equipped with “Holo Labs” where kids can get virtual hands-on experience with environments not currently accessible to them…a trip to Mars, a deep dive 10 miles below sea level, the inside of a jet engine in action, a journey into the heart of an active volcano…the possibilities are endless, and the probability is very high that this will eventually become a reality.
And it’s all coming on the Windows 10 environment that is purpose-built for a 3D holographic experience. The Windows 10 Creators Update is just the first step in that evolutionary process, and I guarantee you that there will be better and better ones in the future that, rather than letting us look into the future for a brief moment, will let the future be brought to us, to our living rooms, our offices, our schools and our lives.