Project HoloLens: Will success go to Microsoft’s head?

My 13- and 12-year-old children, like so many kids, are HUGE fans of the online gaming craze, Minecraft. My son, who is a bit of a geek, has even recreated scenes from his favorite literary universe — Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Very impressive, I have to say (speaking as a geek myself). When I was his age, I used to LOVE to repurpose my mathematical grid-paper, along with my No. 2 pencils to create scenes from my favorite genres by coloring in very large pixels… So I understand the way the mind fills in the gaps, touching on those pleasure points of perception. His mom just wishes he was playing with real friends.

But never fear, he is actually playing with real friends. Their cousin even host his very own Minecraft universe, where they chat, chase, trap and out-build one another with the same fervor we used to play pickup football games in the backyard. I often catch a glimpse of my son smiling wryly, or laughing to himself, to the tune of his encoded tap-tap-tap. I am sure he has just outwitted someone and is doing the digital equivalent of a victory lap.

At Koch, I am a part of the Mobility Center of Excellence, the purpose of which is to explore opportunities across Koch companies where mobile development might create value. Apart from the challenges of trying to steer in this dynamic, but fragmented arena, there is also the fun factor: testing all kinds of hand-held devices, trying on the latest wearables, or, best of all — getting to demo various Head-Mounted Displays (officially referred to as HMD). The latter demos have ranged from a roller-coaster thrill-ride with Google’s Cardboard, to an alien adventure with Samsung’s new virtual reality headset GEAR, to walking through an Italian villa by way of Oculus Rift. Pure geek fun!

But each immersive experience has exposed the debilitating nature of HMD: A great experience for the eyes and ears, but essentially taking the user completely out of reality.

“It has been called “the most intriguing…technology…since the Oculus Rift.”

Then I read the February WIRED article about Microsoft’s Project HoloLens. Unveiled to the media early this year, it has been called “the most intriguing…technology…since the Oculus Rift.” (theverg.com) And HoloLens is quickly making waves in the world of virtual and augmented reality. It is billed as the perfect blend of both. It may, in fact, be just the right tool to overcome some of the constraints of current iterations of VR and AR.

About as lightweight as a high-end cycling helmet, the HoloLens (essentially a smart visor with internal projection screens and a host of external video sensors) can generate holograms, virtual environments and augmented reality — all in a way that does not otherwise “blind” the user. It elevates the level of user inputs by responding to gestures, voice and gaze.

This means, for the user, there is a spectrum of outputs as well a wide range of inputs. Normal activities, from sitting at a computer, or interacting with objects (real or holographic) or other people (also real or otherwise), to comfortably ambling through the living room, HoloLens, will allow the user “to do what we’re put on earth to do: interact with other humans, environments, or objects.” (WIRED, 76)

“Soon imaginative kids might be able to play in 3D, working alongside holograms of their real-life friends to build things together.”

Too good to be true? In the world of digital design and creation, the very utterance of the name “Microsoft” generates a gag reflex. However, if you are paying attention, you’ll notice on the fringes of its empire of mediocrity, that the minds up in Redmond, Washington (at Microsoft’s global headquarters) produce a steady stream of projects that are very inspired. Some of the most bleeding-edge digital/computing explorations I have been exposed to were projects of the self-same inventors of the Blue-Screen-of-Death, the Windows phone and SharePoint. Whether these inspired projects actually make it to the market is another story.

For Microsoft and HoloLens, the event-horizon may be getting very close. With new leadership, the opening up of their .NET programming language to the open-source universe, and a new operating system in the works, Microsoft is poised to storm the market with a brand new attitude, and HoloLens leading the way into what they think will be a “new phase of computing.” (WIRED, 76)

Perhaps most telling of all is Microsoft’s recent acquisition of the powerhouse game Minecraft. If the reviews and teasers are accurate, Microsoft is planning to position the game as a flagship application for the new HoloLens. If Microsoft can leverage the some 28.6 million users of Minecraft (theverge.com) as early adopters, they just might have an instant audience.

And if that audience is anything like my kids, they will have a built-in network of friends and family to recruit. “Soon imaginative kids might be able to play in 3D, working alongside holograms of their real-life friends to build things together.” (WIRED, 79)

I can’t wait to try it.  Uh, I mean, I can’t wait for my kids to try it.

 


 

Daniel Brake

Daniel Brake loves the challenges and opportunities posed by new technology. He works in the area of interactive and mobile design/development.