Today, Microsoft demonstrated how far its augmented-reality HoloLens wonderland project has come. In fact, it cemented HoloLens’s place as one of the most exciting new technologies we have—just in ways that you may never actually see.
When HoloLens debuted in January, the use cases Microsoft proffered were largely domestic; you could build (Microsoft-owned) Minecraft worlds in your living room, or have conversations over (Microsoft-owned) Skype with far-flung friends who felt a few feet away. Even WIRED’s behind-the-scenes look back then mostly comprised games and other low-stakes living room interactions. While a broad range of industries and institutions have use for augmented reality, Microsoft spent the bulk of its HoloLens introduction emphasizing the device’s consumer potential.
They weren’t necessarily wrong to do so. Virtual browsers on your walls, a virtual puppy wagging its virtual tail on your floor; turning your home into a holographic playground still has plenty of appeal. It also, though, raises plenty of doubts. How much would something like that even cost? How much of an improvement is HoloLens Netflix over your big-screen television? And that’s not even getting into the social challenges of strapping future-goggles to your face and pinch-zooming in thin air while your roommate and her boyfriend are just trying to watch Broad City.
There was plenty of home-use HoloLens play at Wednesday’s Microsoft BUILD developers conference. But it was joined by demonstrations of where the device’s true promise lies: schools, offices, labs, and all of the other professional settings that need better toys to help improve all of our lives.Microsoft
You can start with the partners Microsoft already has lined up; for every consumer-focused Disney there’s a NASA, Autodesk, Sketchfab, and more. These are companies that will create uses for HoloLens for which you likely won’t have much direct personal interest. You’ll almost certainly, though, benefit from their existence.
It’s even more telling that Microsoft devoted equal if not more time to professional-grade applications as it did to managing your holographic contact lists.
In the first of these, representatives from Case Western Reserve University demonstrated how medical education could benefit from virtual anatomical lessons instead of—or more likely, in addition to—the traditional piles and piles of cadavers and thick medical tomes.
“The mixed reality of the HoloLens has the potential to revolutionize [medical] education by bringing 3D content into the real world,” said CWRU’s Mark Griswold from the BUILD stage, before demonstrating how, “using holograms we can easily separate and focus in on individual systems.” The result is like having access to every facet of the famed Bodies exhibition at once, directly in front of you, any one aspect of which you can examine more closely before retreating back to surface level.
Griswold also pointed out that while you can’t actually touch a hologram (sorry, sex industry!) its virtual nature does have certain advantages; you can animate blood flow through veins, or increase the size of a fist-sized heart to beach ball proportions to observe fine detail. And that’s just medicine; think of architecture, engineering, design. It’s a stretch to think HoloLens could give you a deeper appreciation of Jane Eyre, but there are more scholarly pursuits it could revolutionize than not.
Even those anatomical wonders were quickly outshone by a clever bit of technological inception. Microsoft also showed off B-15, a robot built from a standard maker kit, powered by a Raspberry Pi 2, blessed with a HoloLens that placed a virtual robot on top of a real one.
It should be first noted that the result is adorable. Super cute! Which is both fun in and of itself and a nod towards HoloLens’s ability, in the right setting, to make technology more accessible, both psychologically and physically. The robot-on-robot was quickly joined by a virtual panel that filled the controller’s field of view with data readouts and controls. That variety and breadth of information would be difficult to see on a tablet screen, and even more so to actually use. When it’s the size of an entire wall, though, making B-15 move, change LED colors, and more was as simple as stabbing at the air.Microsoft
Wonderful Minus the Weird
Both of these live demonstrations at BUILD were compelling examples of how HoloLens—and other augmented reality projects like it—won’t necessarily find their most power in our homes. More importantly, they don’t portend a Wall-E-world future in which the closest thing we have to physical interaction is accidentally brushing fingertips on our way to virtual mouse clicks.
That’s the real barrier to consumer adoption of augmented reality. It’s weird. It’s alienating. It’s a flashing neon signpost on your face that alternates between NO EYE CONTACT and I’M NOT QUITE HERE. Until faceputers are indecipherable from an ordinary pair of glasses—or better yet, contact lenses—they’ll continue to communicate an insurmountable sense of other. Until they do more than help you ignore the people you’re with, they’ll always be at least a little bit absurd.
The professional setting has with it few of those social pitfalls. If you’re wearing HoloLens as part of your work, you’re not being rude, you’re simply… doing your work.
There’s also precedent for augmented reality products being more successful in an office than the discount rack at Brookstone, though Microsoft may not welcome it. The original incarnation of Google Glass was by all accounts a commercial failure, but carved out a useful niche in the medical community. HoloLens, more capable, with weightier apps and more serious partners at its disposal, could find plenty more footholds.
What Microsoft showed today was an understanding that the near-future potential of reality-bending compu-googles isn’t games and gimmicks. It’s professional and practical. That’s not as exciting to watch as building a Minecraft castle, but it’s a much more realistic foundation.