I am a holographic developer. I know because Microsoft told me I was. And this was just 15 minutes or so into a 90-minute session about building apps for the HoloLens, the company’s new and fascinating mixed-reality headset, so I must be pretty good.
In truth, it’s not too challenging to build holograms for the HoloLens, which is exactly what Microsoft has been trying to emphasize at Build 2015. Holographic apps are based on the same code that all Windows 10 apps use, and with just a few modifications, they can be made to work on HoloLens.
After getting a taste of some of that, I think that’s largely true. Microsoft had prepped a lot of ready-made code and objects to build our holograms, but, from what I saw, there was nothing that some basic 3D imaging software and a little knowledge of coding and development tools (like Unity) wouldn’t address.
The state of HoloLens
More exciting, though, was getting some hands-on time with working HoloLens hardware. The device is clearly much further along than when my colleague Lance Ulanoff took it for a spin in January, when the working model looked more like something from Wall-E, sporting exposed circuitry and requiring a tether to external power.
This time the HoloLens units looked like finished products, worked on internal battery power, and there were dozens of them. Microsoft built enough HoloLenses for everyone in its holographic classroom, roughly 30 people.
A quick visual tour of Microsoft #HoloLens. #Build2015 pic.twitter.com/FszoDtVp7b
— Pete Pachal (@petepachal) May 1, 2015
Despite the progress, secrecy was still the order of the day. Microsoft forbade photography, video and even smartphones at the session, and it was held off-site, not in the Moscone Center, where the Build 2015 developer conference was taking place.
The HoloLens isn’t the most comfortable wearable. Keep in mind the device is still a prototype, but most of the design has been worked out: It looks like a pair of goggles, but it’s held in place by an adjustable band that holds the HoloLens itself. That way, the bridge of your nose doesn’t actually carry any weight, and you can adjust the goggles up and down as necessary.
In practice, those adjustments work pretty well except that the band itself isn’t that comfortable. To ensure it securely held the weight of the HoloLens, I kept wanting to tighten the band, but that made the device a bit uncomfortable to wear.
The hologram Microsoft pre-made for us was a mix of virtual objects: two paper airplanes on top of a pad of graph paper. I uploaded the pattern to the headset and put it on.
Seeing my hologram for the first time quickly educated me about what the HoloLens does, exactly: This isn’t intended to be a fully immersive environment like Oculus Rift, with virtual constructs surrounding you, including your peripheral vision. Instead, you see holograms only through a tight “window” in the front of the headset. Move your gaze too far to either side, and they’ll disappear past a certain point.
According to Microsoft, HoloLens was never intended to be virtual reality like Oculus; it’s about creating holograms and making them interact with the real world, and it certainly does that.
Walking with holograms
You interact with holograms in three ways: gaze, gesture and voice. By gaze, Microsoft means head position. The HoloLens isn’t equipped with eye tracking (at least not in the first generation).
Once I got used to seeing objects that weren’t really there, I explored my hologram. With the exception of a few buggy moments, the HoloLens did an incredible job of making me believe the virtual objects were real ones. Moving my head around paper airplanes, new surfaces would come into view. If I got close enough, parts of the object would melt away as I could see “inside” it.
Of course, I couldn’t interact with it — yet. After reconnecting the HoloLens to the PC, I added a pair of paper balls, one made of crumpled newspaper and the other a star-like dodecahedron, which hung over the paper airplanes in midair. I also added a “cursor,” a little red ring, which let me do things with my objects.
When I put the HoloLens back on, the cursor would appear on any object I was gazing at. Now it was time for the next level of interactivity: gestures. I looked at one of the balls, moved my finger up and down, and the ball fell — first down the angle of the paper airplane, then along the pad and finally down, down, down into a virtual infinity.
The next step involved adding voice interactivity. Instead of a gesture, I could simply speak a custom command to the HoloLens (I chose “Shazam”) when the cursor was on one of the balls, and they would fall. Saying “Reset” rewound the whole setup back to the start.
Next was sounds. I added a soundtrack to the program, one that would play louder when I was close to the holograms and fade as I moved away. When the balls fell, they made crinkling noises (remember, they’re supposed to be paper).
Finally it was time to add real-world interactivity. This time when the balls fell off the pad of paper, they didn’t fall into infinity, instead they stopped when they hit the actual floor. Or table. Or desk. Or whatever was sitting where I chose the setup to appear.
Real-world interaction was one of the most impressive things HoloLens does. The device, which is loaded with sensors, does real-time mapping of all the objects close by, and you can actually see it doing this since you can make the wireframes visible. There’s a little latency — as other people in the room moved, their wireframes took a second to catch up — but it was an extremely cool effect.
Microsoft revealed a fun Easter Egg in their pre-loaded setup — a whole origami-inspired world, complete with flying paper pterodactyl. And then the demo was over, 90 minutes after we started, which felt all too soon.
Reality sets in
My time with the HoloLens left me wanting more, although with the current hardware I’m not sure if that would have been a good thing. It’s pretty uncomfortable in its current state, although I’m sure the design will be refined before launch.
But using the HoloLens in person helped me understand it better. First, it grounded my expectations: This isn’t a fully immersive environment, and the hardware has limits. Its sensors couldn’t, for example, map out the entire room I was in, only a few feet out.
Once you accept the device’s limitations, you begin to unlock the possibilities within it. It’s not hard to imagine a developer creating a holographic version of video chat — with not just floating screens, but floating people, rendered in 3D. Building virtual pets that follow you around would be child’s play.
The HoloLens is untested technology, and it remains to be seen whether it’ll get the developer support it needs to be more than just a curiosity. From what I experienced today, though, the barrier to entry — for users and developers — isn’t as high as you might think. It’s not as sexy as the mysteriousness around it has made it seem, but for Microsoft, the reality may be just as exciting.
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