I have never made any kind of app before. But in less than 90 minutes, I made a holographic augmented reality app during a session at Microsoft’s HoloLens Academy. And it was surprisingly easy.
When Microsoft gave us the closest look yet at the headset during the Build conference, people were praising the company for what may be its most innovative project ever.
But flashy demos and impressive hardware aside, the most important part of HoloLens may be how simple it is for developers to get started.
“Windows Holographic is just Windows,” we were told at the beginning of our lesson, a point that would be emphasized repeatedly. And rightly so. For developers, this is Microsoft’s most important pitch: It doesn’t matter if you’ve never developed a 3D app, or worked with virtual reality — knowing the basics of Windows development is more than enough to get you in the door.
With #Windows10, holograms are universal windows apps, and all universal windows apps can be made to work on Windows Holographic.
— Microsoft HoloLens (@HoloLens) April 29, 2015
I created my app in Unity’s 3D game engine — a smart choice as it’s an experience that will be familiar to many developers already. Even if you’re not familiar with it, the software is very user-friendly.
Given our group’s overall lack of experience — and our time constraints — Microsoft completed parts of the steps for us, like writing scripts and creating game objects, and many of the basic components of our apps were preloaded into Unity.
Making things easy
During my demo, we only worked with apps in a fixed position — not the floating versions that follow you around the room, which we saw during Wednesday’s keynote. To set the position, developers set specific values within Unity that guide how and where the hologram appears in relation to the headset (in our case it was half a meter below eye level and about 2 meters directly in front of us.)
Customizing other aspects of the app — like adding voice commands, a soundtrack and gesture controls — was as easy as dragging and dropping scripts onto specific components. We didn’t have to write any of the scripts ourselves but we got a look at many of them in Visual Studio and they were neither complicated nor long. In fact, many of them consisted of just a few lines of code. Making adjustments was also surprisingly easy. Changing the voice commands HoloLens responded to, for example, only required replacing the default commands with any word or phrase we wanted.
Every time we made a change to the app, we could test out the results almost immediately by deploying the app to Visual Studio. Once there, all we needed to do was unplug the headset (it connects to the computer with USB) and look straight ahead.
There are three main ways to interact with the holograms: gaze, gestures and voice. (The headset is also compatible with Bluetooth controllers, but Microsoft says it doesn’t anticipate many apps needing them.)
Gestures require enabling a cursor, which tracks with your head movements (if you ever used Nintendo’s Wii, it’s a similar concept but the cursor position corresponds to sensors on your headset, rather than a controller.) One of the advantages of Unity is that enabling a cursor — and many other features — is literally as simple as checking a box.
Throughout the process, members of the HoloLens team who were coaching us through the process emphasized how simple it was to get started, even for those (like myself) with little to no experience. It’s still early, of course, and it’s not clear how long it will be until developers everywhere will be able to get their hands on the device. But the simplicity could be particularly significant to Minecraft users, who are already known for their love of customization — something CEO Satya Nadella appears to have had in mind when Microsoft acquired the company.
There are some caveats. We were working on a demo that was designed to be on the easier side, with only a few features and controls. More likely than not, Unity is not what will be used by all developers once they get the HoloLens, so your mileage will vary. It’s also not clear what it will be like to work with apps that have been ported from other platforms, like iOS and Android, which could also make the process more complex.
But if it’s even half as simple as the process I witnessed, then Microsoft probably won’t have trouble getting developers to use it.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.