After playing around with our new Microsoft HoloLens for a few days (one of the first in Africa?), I decided to write down a couple of thoughts on the device. It’s time to wrap our minds around holographic computing. If you haven’t yet heard of the HoloLens, you can check out one of their TED presentations on YouTube.
Although a lot of VR devices have hit the market during 2016, augmented or mixed reality devices are a different story. During the last couple of months Microsoft has taken a very strategic (and cautious) approach, working with select partners to test, develop and give feedback on the HoloLens. Even public demos were carefully controlled. At //build 2015, which I attended, only a few delegates could sign up for an additional demonstration of the HoloLens. No cameras were allowed, and only some were lucky enough to actually try the device, after which a focused feedback session was required. The device has been available to the US and Canada for a few months now, and only recently have they made it available for pre-order to 6 additional countries. Now why would Microsoft take this approach and not just try to sell it to as many developers as possible?
One obvious reason is to protect their investment. Google Glass is a recent example of a product that got shelved because the market just wasn’t ready for it (for reasons which can be discussed at another time). But the main reason I think for being slow in releasing the HoloLens is maybe the most obvious one – if people don’t know what to do with it, the excitement and enthusiasm might fade and turn into negative sentiment. As with all new technologies, the use-cases are still to be explored. Think about the personal computer, internet, tablets, etc. At the start, a lot of people didn’t see a use for it, let alone imagining these devices in every home. Years later we can’t imagine life without it. Will this be the case with mixed reality devices? A lot of big companies are betting on it being an integral part of our lives, but only time will tell if this will become a reality.
The HoloLens is a new computing platform, and it requires a new way of thinking around how we design and interact with applications. It’s a computer yes, but with a completely different interface. The way you interact with the HoloLens reminds me of Minority Report (incidentally the movie’s UI was designed by John Underkoffler). In a similar way, the HoloLens takes a much more human-centered approach, than the more traditional computer-centered approach with regards to the UI. You can use either a couple of hand gestures, your voice, or a bluetooth paired keyboard for more traditional input. The HoloLens also understands your 3 dimensional space, and keeps track of your surroundings. When you restart your session, it can remember on which wall you docked certain applications and where your 3D holograms were floating in space. Developers can take advantage of these new capabilities to design interesting games and apps.
Think for example, of using 3D holograms to display complex data, or to give Cortana a visual representation. But I hear some ask, “why add 3D UIs and voice recognition when a simple textbox interface or graph would do?” My answer is because we are humans and have to design a computer to respond to the way we interact naturally with our world, and not the other way around. We might have been limited by technology in the past, but not anymore. The thing is we have become so entrenched in how traditional computer interfaces work, that we basically have to unlearn it all. It will take some time to start thinking differently and to imagine a future that more resembles a sci-fi movie, where computers naturally respond to us and integrate seamlessly into our environments. The future is today, so let’s start wrapping our minds around the possibilities of holographic computing and start creating what we have been dreaming of for so long.