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05 May 2015 14:24
A ball of scrunched-up newspaper lies on a desk alongside colourful, triangular objects. I raise a finger in the air, and make a tapping motion on the ball.
It rolls off the desk with a rustling noise.
When the smoke clears, it reveals a gaping hole in the floor. Inside the hole, a cavernous green world appears. As I move around the edges of the hole, the view shifts to reveal layer upon layer of vague subterranean constructions. Red paper planes float about in the “sky” below like birds.
I speak a command: “Reset world”.
Instantly, the floor is back to its normal state of being, well, a floor. The ball of newspaper is back on the desk. I walk round the ball, examine it from each side, and from above and below. It is completely intact.
I pull the visor off my head, and the ball and desk disappear. I cautiously step on the carpet where the hole had appeared. Completely solid.
The scene that had just played itself out had been made possible by a new device called the Microsoft HoloLens. It is essentially a hologram viewer, but is also somewhat more. It is the first system that makes it possible to view holograms through a viewer that is not dependent on wires, connection to a computer or external cameras.
Unlike virtual reality viewers, like Samsung’s Gear VR, the HoloLens allows virtual images to be overlaid on the real world. The concept is termed “mixed reality” and, unlike augmented reality, allows the user to interact with the image. It could, for example, be an application like a calendar hovering in mid-air, and allowing the user to click on an appointment to expand the entry.
Applications for the HoloLens are built on a new platform called Windows Holographic, which allows developers to import applications and scripts, integrating images and commands into the user experience. As long as a program has been created as a universal Windows application – a standard application built to function across all Windows devices, like notebooks, tablets and smartphones – it can be imported directly into Windows Holographic.
The HoloLens was first announced in January, and formally unveiled to developers at Microsoft’s Build 2015 conference in San Francisco last week. During the conference, Microsoft ran a Holographic Academy, a four-hour deep dive course for developers wanting to learn how to build applications and experiences for the HoloLens. A 90-minute version offered a comprehensive introduction to the platform, allowing non-coders – including this writer – to get a detailed idea of what goes into building a holographic application.
At heart, the process is designed to locate a virtual object in the physical world, and to enable control via gaze – visual focus is key to pinpointing where an action will be executed – gesture and voice.
With gesture control, Microsoft has introduced a new gesture, simply comprising holding a finger in the air and simulating a tap on a keyboard – except it takes place in mid-air, executing an action represented by the spot where the gaze is focused. Voice can also be used to execute such commands, as well as to reset the scene, should the user get lost in the process.
The end result is magical. For a developer, the experience of making an object or application come to “reality” in mid-air is like seeing a new world for the first time. For the user, it is mesmerising to be able to stroll in and out of a virtual scene or application.
And this is no mere frivolous entertainment concept. It has massive implications for health and education.
During an opening keynote presentation at Build, the audience was treated to some of the dramatic, yet down-to-earth possibilities: A medical lecturer walking around a high-definition hologram of a heart, explaining its functioning; a paleontologist exploring a dinosaur skull; an architect demonstrating bridge construction.
That’s even before we get to the more visionary uses, like controlling the Mars Rover as if one is standing alongside it on the surface of the red planet; directing a virtual robot through a hazardous environment.
In one demonstration, a plain room is transformed as a virtual screen is placed on one wall and begins to run a movie; virtual furniture appears; and a live weather forecast from a standard weather app floats in mid-air.
Of course, the objects only exist while viewed through the HoloLens. Voice- and gesture-recognition allows only the viewer to interact wit the scene. In future versions, however, it is likely that multiple users will be able to interact jointly with a specific hologram. During the hands-on session, trainers refused to be drawn on the possibility, saying only that they are not yet talking about such functions.
Commercial release of the HoloLens is not yet scheduled and pricing strategy is still to be formulated.
Microsoft clearly wants to avoid the Google Glass debacle: the search giant had created massive expectations with its eye-level computer, but was blind-sided by and equally massive consumer and social backlash. It eventually pulled the plug on the project, and has gone back to the drawing board.
The HoloLens is a far larger and more overt gadget than Google Glass, but therein lies its greater appeal: it is very obviously a viewing device for specific purposes, and is not attempting to hide itself as a “wearable” like glasses.
The real key, of course, is whether people will find it more useful and more compelling to interact with a 3D hologram rather than a flat image on a screen. The fact that 3D movies have so far failed to convert a mass market that prefers movies flat on a screen, should provide an early caution against getting too excited about holograms.
However, if it can go beyond gimmicks like exploding floors and obvious educational applications, it may well bring new magic to the world of information and entertainment.
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