HoloLens is a wonderful bit of technology that has me massively excited for the future, but not for the obvious 3D-Minecraft reasons everyone is talking about. In all fairness, I wouldn’t say it has nothing to do with Minecraft. Given my not-so-secret love for the game, I’m sure that if I owned a HoloLens, I’d almost certainly buy the Minecraft version that goes with it. But that’s not why Microsoft created the HoloLens. And that’s nowhere near the real reason I’m practically giddy for this kind of technology.
While I undoubtedly watched the footage of the initial reveal of the device from Microsoft Holographic, as well as everything from E3, I also happened to watch Microsoft’s Build Conference for developers. There were a lot of really exciting innovations that were shown there, but the final half-hour of the three-hour day-one keynote was devoted entirely to the HoloLens. And in that half-hour, they didn’t show Minecraft once. What they did show, however, was an amazing glimpse of what the future could look like.
For those of you who are into tech, and have the uncommon trait of having patience and/or an attention span, you can still watch a lot of really interesting things from Build online, or even download it to watch on the go. I highly recommend it (an attention span, and the conference itself). Cutting to the chase regarding the HoloLens, however, in that half-hour demonstration, they showed off what the device is really made for, how they made it, and why it is so special.
The first reason this is groundbreaking? In an interview with Gizmodo, one of the project leads, Kudo Tsunoda, explained “Microsoft HoloLens is not a gaming peripheral, it’s fully untethered, so you’re not attaching Microsoft HoloLens to anything. It’s a standalone holographic computer. So it’s like asking, you know, ‘Hey what is the main thing you’re going to do when you go buy a PC?’…
…Different people do different things with PCs. Gamers are going to love gaming on a PC. Other people will love using Skype on their PC. Other people will like learning new things, and so that’s the way we kind of think about Microsoft HoloLens. It’s not about ‘here’s the one thing people are going to do,’ as much as it’s a multipurpose device and it really enables whatever you like to do. Now you’re able to now do it in a new medium.”
Essentially, the sky is the virtual limit with this thing. Ultimately it depends on what apps developers create for it, and how much support Microsoft, developers, and consumers place on making this a success. I must add a caveat that the price point surely will play a factor, as well as whether the machine works when in the hands of ordinary folks.
One of the reasons this could be so revolutionary, and one of the main points they kept stressing in Build is that HoloLens (unlike other virtual reality devices) is not meant to take you away from reality. It’s not meant to be a purely digital experience. To me, that seems to say pretty clearly that it’s not meant to be a top-notch gaming device, or entertainment device (unlike many of the other virtual reality projects under way). It’s meant to change how you live your life, in small and large ways.
Forget the future, what does the new piece from Microsoft Holographic actually do? They started off by showing a man in a replica of his apartment (above), and all over the place were 2D and 3D holographic apps for various purposes. Essentially, the HoloLens scans and recognizes rooms, and you can drag, drop, and snap apps in specific places. Just like on your real wall, you may have a clock in one spot, and an indoor/outdoor thermometer in another, and your TV in another, you can place apps on your walls, desk, end table, or pretty much anywhere. You can have several different apps set up on the wall to work on a report, while you’re checking the stocks, and watching three different live sports events.
I’m not saying a person doing all that at once would actually accomplish much, but in principle, it’s pretty freakin’ sweet. As someone who frequently multitasks (or has multiple documents and applications up as part of a single task), it would be nice to be able to potentially have a ton of apps up, and all I have to do is look at them rather than flip through tabs on a traditional computer browser, or have to have multiple monitors set up for my computer (granted, I’m still going to, but the freedom to not have to is wonderful). Another nice bit of freedom is that, if you need to get up and go somewhere, you can unsnap an app, and have it come along with you. I’m telling you right now though, if I’m on Skype with anyone and they take me along with them to the bathroom, I will find them and I will kill them. You’ve all been warned.
They also showed off other applications focusing on robotics (above), and creating an interface with a kit-built robot. HoloLens allowed the technician to interact with a robot, and adjust settings without having to go back to the computer in the office, because the device doesn’t need to interface with a computer. The HoloLens is the computer.
Something especially interesting about that demo was that, not only did the HoloLens enable the programmer to interact with the robot, but the device made the robot better. They noted that, with these robotic kits, the available sensors for robots to scan and navigate space leave quite a bit to be desired. So the robot can wirelessly link with the HoloLens, and use the incredible scanners built into that to scan the room, plot a path, and even react appropriately if something moves into the programmed path.
Even if you haven’t watched Build, there’s a chance you’ve seen (or at least heard people reference) the latest video (below) featuring academic and medical applications for the device, as shown by professors at the Case Western Reserve University. In the latest video, Microsoft shows off other real-world applications, while also displaying and acknowledging what is arguably the biggest limitation of the HoloLens: its limited field of view. A lot more on that in a moment.
The professors love the ability to show people three-dimensional versions of the human body that can be looked through without the need for a cadaver. Students can see how joints, muscles, and organs work without cutting open a live individual, and they can even perform simulated procedures where failures don’t result in injury or death.
Back to the other, more highly noted aspect of that video. A limited field of view is where, depending on the application or the use, HoloLens might have a very serious Achilles heel. I say “might” because it really depends a lot upon the application being used. If people are using apps that are focused on reading, or examining something, it shouldn’t be an issue.
While peripheral vision is great for tracking motion and giving us a general sense of what’s around us, your eyes can’t accurately read or process things that are outside of a window of just a few degrees. Look at this article, for example. Without moving your eyes away from one spot, see how many words you can read from the line above where you’re looking. Now try three lines up. Now five. Now ten. We really don’t actively use that large of a field of view for a major portion of our day-to-day activities. And if it is an issue, you just slightly change where you’re looking and you’re good.
Where it would be a major concern is the area where Microsoft has been putting the most public emphasis: gaming. In gaming, you absolutely need a wide field of view. So unless you’re playing the game as an app on the wall, or you’re playing something fairly “zoomed out” you really could miss important aspects of the game. This would be especially true for action games, where seconds count, and if you can’t see the person who is shooting you, or the boulder that’s about to crush you, your gaming experience is going to be pretty miserable. Yes, holographic Minecraft will be pretty sweet. But for most games, and for most people, I can’t imagine HoloLens being anything but a really expensive disappointment.
Again, from the interview with Gizmodo, Kudo Tsunoda said “The field of view in the device you see today… it certainly is not final, and yet I wouldn’t expect any kind of dramatic difference in what the field of view that we have. So I do think we’re doing good things as far as how we design the experiences, using things like spacial audio to clue you into what’s going on around you. It’s not final, but I would also say it’s not a huge dramatic difference in the final version from what you see today.”
So I see this potentially going in several possible directions. If Microsoft doesn’t change how they are talking about HoloLens, people either will buy it, and probably be disappointed and maybe even feel cheated, or they won’t buy it. Another possibility is that Microsoft shows what the device is really for, but developers (or consumers) never run with it, and it simply fizzles out. What I’m personally hoping is that Microsoft figures out how to show people what this really is, what it’s really for, and that developers and consumers run with it. The first generation of a device like this could be revolutionary, but a show of support from developers and consumers would obviously pave the way for improved models from Microsoft, and competition from other companies, and yield lower prices with higher quality for the general public.
Who knows what’s going to happen here. We can only guess what Microsoft’s future marketing strategy will be (especially with how they failed to effectively market the Xbox One), and we can only guess how much developer and consumer support the Hololens will receive. And it’s entirely possible that, even with massive support, the device doesn’t usher us into a technological utopia. I hope you’ll let me know what you think, but I, for one, am optimistic that this could be something huge.