Eyes-on with the HoloLens: first-hand impressions on what it is, and what it needs

Eyes on with the HoloLens: what it is, what it means, and what it needs

Earlier this week, I traveled up the freeway 30 miles to Redmond and Microsoft’s Building 92 to witness the company’s much anticipated Consumer Preview event. There, journalists and tech press from all over assembled to listen to Terry Myerson, Joe Belfiore, Phil Spencer, Satya Nadella and a few surprise special guests tell more about upcoming enhancements to Microsoft’s Windows 10, and as it turned out, to let us in on quite a bit more about where the company is headed.

As far as surprises go, Microsoft hit a home run. No one was expecting to walk on Mars that day, or watch as bats flew out of the walls. And yet, later on in the day, that’s just what we did.

After touting new Windows 10 features like Cortana and an Xbox app, and showing off a decidedly non-consumer product with the “Surface Hub”, Microsoft unleashed a bombshell. Alex Kipman, who ran Kinect development for Microsoft, was back, this time with another product straight out of our science fiction dreams for the future. As far as surprises go, Microsoft hit a home run. No one was expecting to walk on Mars that day, or watch as bats flew out of the walls. And yet, later on in the day, that’s just what we did.

It’s been a few days since the event now, and with some time to reflect and to absorb what others have written and said, I’ve had time to gather up some thoughts on not only what Holo is like, but what it means for the company. Let’s start with some reflections on the demo itself, and go from there.

After the keynote ended, we headed out into the hallways. If you’ve ever been to Microsoft, you’ve probably been to the Microsoft Company Store in Building 92. The event took place upstairs above the store, and from what I’ve heard, Microsoft pulled out all the stops to get it ready, bringing in lots of white leather furniture, natural wood slab tables, and living grass centerpieces. It was very nice, casual elegance, if you will. First stop was a demo room with lots of devices running the Windows 10 build 9926, where we were able to get our hands on Cortana and the new start menu for the first time.

Holo moon group

We were then split into groups, and while we waited to see Holo (or that’s what it felt like), our little group (we were the “moon group”, complete with guides with little moon signs held above their heads to guide us from demo to demo, and to watch us like hawks that we didn’t take pictures while downstairs) saw demos of Surface Hub, and then Windows Phone and the new Windows 10 universal apps like Mail, Calendar, and Maps (later, after the Holo demo, we would get a demo of the Xbox app). When it came time to head downstairs, we were told to check our bags, and lock phones and cameras and anything that could record in a set of school gym lockers.

Then it was down a couple of flights of stairs, and now we were under the store instead of above it. We were told that Holo was developed here, in secret, and maybe it was, but the rooms we were ushered into weren’t engineering labs, they were demo rooms specifically set up to show off Holo. In their Windows Weekly podcast with Leo Laporte, Mary Jo Foley mentioned that she was told only about 2,000 people have seen Holo so far, but it’s clear that Microsoft took great pains to prepare “the basement” for just this type of demo. Now that the word is out, expect these types of demos to continue, this is going to be one busy basement.

Holo Studio Space Koala

We started off with a demo of Holo Studio, a 3D graphics creation app that allows you to not only create 3d objects, but later 3D print them into real solid shapes. In fact, we were given a USB stick printed with what’s become the Holo mascot, a koala in a space suit, all boxed up in a fun little paint can. We weren’t able to try out the Holo Studio ourselves, and that’s probably a good thing as the learning curve, even for the simple graphical controls, would have slowed down the tour. In our next demo, in another of the little specially made demo rooms that were made to look like rooms in a house, we got our first true “eyes on” experience.

As you’ve heard, the engineering units we wore were quite a bit different than the ones worn on stage, with an “HPU” pack, that’s Holographic processing unit, hung around our necks (think the size and weight of a normal home router), a thick black cord connecting the whole thing to power and more processing, and a set of glasses that had to be screwed down onto our heads, making sure it wouldn’t fall off and that we could clearly see a projected square box inside the headset. Far from the sleek and sexy and unencumbered units shown onstage at the keynote, these engineering units gave us a look through the HoloLens, but didn’t give much in the way of a full wires-free experience.

But still, what an experience it was, and it worked in basically the same way the final version will: that is, the HoloLens tracks your “gaze” with light beams to detect where your eyes are looking, and projects an image in front of you that’s interactive, changing with your eye movement and where you are in the 3D space.

We started off with Minecraft, and once we were fitted with the device, one at a time, a room with a coffee table and a painting on the wall became filled with Minecraft castles and houses, complete with Minecraft sheep and Minecraft TNT. Using our newly learned Holo gesture of “tapping” our index finger (the promotional materials for Holo show a number of other gestures that Holo will “know”, we were only taught the one), we could explode the TNT and create Minecraft block holes in the table, revealing more Minecraft shapes below. We exploded more TNT from a picture hanging on the wall, which revealed a 3D space behind the painting, and bats, blocky Minecraft bats, flew out.

Our next demo involved Skype, where a live person on the other end of a Skype conversation from within Holo guided us through how to wire up a light switch. To Microsoft’s credit and probably overplayed faith in the tech press, we really wired up a working light switch. I might have been more impressed if I hadn’t done this hundreds of times before, but Mary Jo Foley told Leo she was quite proud of herself!

Here, it was a little difficult to tell where the Holo stopped and real life began, as we were fully immersed in an alternate world, literally.

Then it was on to the grand finale, the trip to Mars. This was by far the most impressive demo of the bunch, as we put on the glasses to reveal a 360 degree view of standing on the surface of Mars. Here, it was a little difficult to tell where the Holo stopped and real life began, as we were fully immersed in an alternate world, literally. We were able to join the two worlds by looking at a computer on a desk in the room, and moving the mouse, amazingly, beyond the computer screen and right out onto the surface of Mars, where we were able to click the mouse and place a flag.

HoloLens Mars

The whole experience felt natural, and with little or no orientation, we were playing Minecraft or walking on Mars. But, like many demos of new technology, Minecraft or Mars barely scratch the surface of what might be accomplished with Holo. For Microsoft particularly, that may turn out to be a problem. Mary Jo Foley was told that when Satya Nadella saw his first Holo demo, it was touted as an Xbox gaming device, but he saw that it could have much more potential than that, and the program was expanded.

But has it expanded too far, too fast? Microsoft’s reputation and history is as a platform company, but for Holo to succeed, it needs to be not only a platform but a compelling turnkey solution. You should be able to play Minecraft on Holo, and many other games as well. You should have a full set of Holo “places” to visit: not just Mars, but wonders of the world, and compelling events, and visits with artists and crafts people in their studios. You should be able to get live help not only on basic tasks like wiring a light switch, but specialized and intricate operations that would benefit from live interactive instruction.

HoloLens

Can 3rd parties contribute to a Holo ecosystem? Of course. Will they, at first, with an unproven installation base and a complex development process? Probably not. Microsoft has been learning from its mistakes of the recent past, bringing back the start menu and a desktop friendly atmosphere to Windows with Windows 10. For Holo, they need to learn from the mistakes they made with Kinect, where cool technology sits under-used and under-appreciated, because Microsoft expected game developers to bear the brunt of making games Kinect-worthy.

Holo is very, very cool, but walking on the same few meters of Mars, or playing with blocks, or Skyping for help on a limited range of subjects is going to get old quick. As cool as it is that Microsoft has delivered Holograms (Holograms!), they’re going to need to deliver a lot more to call the HoloLens a success.

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