Microsoft’s HoloLens Looks Incredible

Yesterday, Microsoft had their consumer focused Windows 10 event, where they announced a ton of new and amazing stuff. Windows 10 looks to be the most significant Windows version since, oh I dunno, probably ever. However, I’m not really ready to talk about that stuff yet. While I was blown away by the conference, I do want to test out all these features and be able to demonstrate them for you, rather than just talk about someone else talking about it. I’ll be checking out the next official build of Windows 10 when it’s released next week, and then I’ll talk to you about it. I’ll check out the Windows 10 phone preview when it’s released “after the Seahawks win the Superbowl,” as Terry Myerson put it. And then I’ll show it off for you.

But then Microsoft mentioned a completely new device. No, it wasn’t a new Surface or a new Lumia. No, it wasn’t some weird phone/tablet hybrid. No, I don’t really care about their 84-inch Perceptive Pixel computer, because I will never be able to buy one and so I don’t care.

When Microsoft announced the HoloLens, my first reaction was to dismiss it. Yet another wearable set of VR glasses. Yet another Oculus Rift rip off. Oh wait, no it’s an Augmented Reality Device. Cool. Another Google Glass rip off instead. But I was wrong.

The First “Holographic” Computer

The idea behind the device itself is pretty simple and familiar. It appears to be a set of glasses that sit on your face with a curved display on top that sits in front of your face, a bunch of forward facing cameras and sensors, a microphone, and presumably some sort of computing hardware and a bevy of wireless antennas. It’s basically the same kind of hardware as something like Google Glass or Oculus Rift.

But that curved glass screen in front of you does not block your view with a device UI. It’s clear and you can see through it, but it displays some sort of stereoscopic 3D image on the screen. The cameras around the front of the device detect objects and surfaces around your world, and then places these stereoscopic images on top of surfaces, across walls, or draping across curves. As you look at objects, a sort of glow cursor will shine over the object, showing you the focus of your gaze. As you see these things popping up in your vision, you’ll naturally want to reach up and touch them, like the first time you likely saw a 3D movie like Avatar. Since they are digital 3D objects, you won’t feel anything, but the camera will see that you are trying to interact. As you reach up, the object will be highlighted, maybe even some buttons will pop up. As you tap in the air with your finger, the object will be selected. You can reach your hand towards an object, grab it, move it, and manipulate it. All this time, the cameras are detecting the movement on your hand and fingers, the movement of your head, and giving you software queues that help you interact with the hardware and software in a way that makes sense.

There’s nothing really new about the hardware. The software sort of takes the center stage as it takes all the input from the cameras, the microphone (there is voice input as well), your own body, and the environment, then creates a digital world around the already existing physical environment, and then guides you in your interaction with it. But even that stuff isn’t really new, per se. Various companies have been experimenting with this stuff for a while. Even Microsoft has been working on this project for five years now. I’m kind of surprised that no one has developed this yet. But to see the actualization of this type of technology is mind blowing. So, in order to stop trying to explain in words what is essentially indescribable, I’ll urge you to just watch the below video.

A New Platform to PC On

The whole conference seemed a bit pipe dreamy. Everyone was super excited and happy and trying to convince you that everything they did was revolutionary and the most amazing thing ever. A lot of it was, to be fair, but that also left me skeptical. I mean, whenever something sounds too good to be true, it typically is, right? We’ve seen this kind of stuff before from Microsoft, and also other companies too. There is so much technology that has come and gone over the years, all of it sounded revolutionary from the pitch, but maybe the implementation didn’t work right. Maybe the development community didn’t embrace it. Maybe the hardware was flawed. Maybe it was too expensive.

But with HoloLens, Microsoft isn’t unveiling some new experience that will only be found on some super expensive Microsoft hardware. They’re unveiling a new type of platform and a new type of PC. HoloLens will probably be the first device, but they’ve baked the “holographic” API’s into Windows 10. Alex Kipman not only invited developers to build for it, but also invited OEMs to build hardware that could drive this same experience. Once again, this is not a one-off, it’s a new experience platform that’s still built with Windows 10 as the software backbone.

That means HoloLens may be the first, but it might not be the last. Once again, because of its potential as a creative and experiential tool, I see HoloLens as the next PC.

A Different Philosophy

When I look at a new product category, my reaction is to assess the intended philosophy behind that product. What is it made to do? What problems does it solve? Who’s it made for? This is where the real differences between HoloLens and all other previous incarnations lie.

Oculus Rift replaces the real world with a digital world, which not only creates a sense of nausea in some people, but also assumes a future where we literally have to be strapped into something so that we don’t hurt ourselves while we experience this digital world. This was created for gamers, a sort that is used to replacing the real world with a digital one because it’s better, more moldable, more creative, and ultimately fairly anonymous. However, this type of experience is highly limited and the philosophy behind it just as frightening as any Hollywood movie has portrayed the reality of a virtual reality-linked world. You literally have to be prevented from interacting with the physical world because you might hurt yourself or hurt someone else.

Google Glass assumed a future in which we would want an overlay of internet data catalogued on our preferrences and delivered to our eyes constantly. We would literally never disconnect from the internet. As much as we are glued to our phones trying to absorb all the data on the internet right now, imagine a world where we don’t even have to look down to ignore people. There’s no interaction, just a bunch of info-barfs being shoved in our face all day, not to mention ads galore. I understand that many people have used Google Glass for awesome things like recording their interaction with a young child or family or other important things. But why does the internet have to be a dumping ground for stuff we apparently can’t remember? Why are we constantly recording things and then looking back nostalgically as we see the present and future with cynicism? I’ve found the Facebook vision of the internet highly limited, easily falsified, and disturbing.

Both of these devices also assume that the real world is somehow insufficient and that the digital internet world is better. Microsoft’s HoloLens seems to assume that the physical world is just fine, and it is our interaction with the digital world that is flawed. We deal with the real world in real and natural ways that make sense to us. Touch-based computing evolved because it was more natural to point with our fingers then point with a cursor. By taking the digital world, translating it into the real world in a natural way, and then allowing us to interact with it in the way we interact with real objects, Microsoft is showing us that the digital world is not a world at all, it is a tool, and should be used as such.

The usage scenario for HoloLens is the same as a laptop. Tablets and smartphones are designed primarily to deliver content to a passive audience. We may interact in that we may tap the screen while playing a game, but smartphones and tablets set the rules for us, take us for a ride, and ask us to hit “next” when we’re ready for the next experience. HoloLens does seem to allow for passive content experiences, but it is primarily designed for the kind of interactive gaming, production, manipulation and tool use that comes from laptops and desktops. That means this is going to be used as a PC. You pick it up when you need the power of the digital world, then set it down when you don’t need it anymore.

A Hopeful Digital Future

I may have done some incredible philosophical waxing on a product that isn’t going to be coming out for several months and that we just saw a really really early preview of, but the Microsoft managed to finally get me excited about virtual reality. I was so ready to dismiss these stupid VR goggles, but after seeing the conference, seeing the preview, and then listening to the tales of some typically skeptical pundits’ experiences with the device, I’m convinced that this may actually be something pretty awesome.

I’m just super excited that someone finally “gets it.” As I betrayed in the above, I’m really tired of a vision of the internet that replaces the real world or somehow makes the real world better. The internet has always been a tool for me, and always seemed to be way more cynical and scary than the real world. Even though I’ve grown up with the digital world and interact with it on a daily basis, I’d still rather use it as a tool and interact with the wonders of the physical world.

I can just imagine building incredible Minecraft worlds in my living room, or drawing mustaches on a stupid character while my wife and I watch something on Netflix plastered on the wall. I can imagine losing the stupid fabric stylus holder for my Surface, building a better one in HoloStudio with my hands, and then sending the specs to my 3D printer for crafting. I’d prefer to see this new vision of a creative and interactive digital future, rather than one that is narcissistic and isolated.

Mike Lohnash