SAN FRANCISCO -- I’ve seen the future of architectural design. And it is HoloLens. Microsoft Corp.’s new three-dimensional (3D), virtual-reality (VR) display technology also will likely change the future of education, entertainment, gaming, health care and, well, just about every other industry. It’s that impressive.
As a member of a small group of invited journalists, I got to try HoloLens at the Microsoft Build Developer Conference Friday. We were escorted to a small room on the 27th floor of the InterContinental Hotel, where we were told to stow all our electronic gear in a locker. There would be no photographs or videos of this session. HoloLens is still in development, and Microsoft, apart from allowing us a shot of a glass-encased prototype, did not want any visual evidence of what we saw.
But I can tell you about it.
I can’t speak about what other members of the group experienced. We were led individually into separate, smaller rooms, where we each got to use a particular HoloLens application. Mine was for architects. Before me on a table was a real-life maquette, or scale model, of a conference center I was supposed to be designing.
After donning the goggles, I was able to manipulate the model with a series of hand gestures. I could drag the roof up and down just by tapping on it. And I could add new units by pointing to the spot where I wanted them. Switching modes within the app, I was walking through the building itself and able to look through walls to locate load-bearing supports and see where all the wiring and water pipes were situated. With each turn of my head, a new section of wall opened up. Still another mode allowed me to view my creation from street level.
I could also call up notes about the project through voice commands and interact with a virtual assistant. HoloLens responds to gaze, gesture and voice (GGV, as Microsoft calls it). My host explained that building a new maquette with all the changes I had made in seconds would ordinarily cost about $12,000 and take three weeks. Microsoft created the app that powered the scenario in partnership with Trimble Buildings.
Looks Real, Period
For most people, water pipes and wiring aren’t supersexy, but what made the experience a true epiphany in terms of realizing the potential of virtual reality was that the 3D, holographic images looked real. Not remarkably real or shockingly real or stunningly real. Just real, period. As in, I could not tell where reality ended and the virtual began. There were no ripples in the matrix.
Indeed, I was no longer in a room in the InterContinental: I was on a job site.
Microsoft didn’t give us much technical information about what was going on. I’m assuming the images were fed to my headset, which was completely untethered, via a wireless connection from a nearby base station. But that’s supposition.
I don’t know with what apps the other members of my group got to play. No doubt, some were slaying orcs and other were trekking through the Alps. But I was glad I got the chance to see HoloLens perform in an industrial setting. That VR will revolutionize gaming is already a given -- and, to a certain extent, it already has through devices such as the Oculus Rift, acquired by Facebook Inc. for $2 billion last year, HTC’s Vive and even the much-maligned Google Glass.
What makes HoloLens stand apart, and what gives it such enormous industrial potential, is its ability to seamlessly blend the real and virtual worlds. I was adding holographic floors onto a model that existed in real life, and I could not perceive any differences between the two. The headset, which is no more uncomfortable than a pair of ski goggles but needs to be adjusted for one’s pupil width, overlays its projection onto the wearer’s normal field of vision rather than blocking it completely. That’s key for industries where workers still need to see the real world.
Imagine an aircraft mechanic repairing an engine while viewing schematics hands-free or a surgeon preparing to operate on a knee while viewing an overlay from an MRI that shows exactly where the patient’s cartilage is torn. The possibilities are great.
All this comes with a big caveat. HoloLens is in its early development, and Microsoft has not yet announced a release date. The demonstrations we experienced were tightly scripted and conducted in highly controlled settings. That’s a far cry from real industrial use, where the unpredictable always happens and conditions can change in a hurry. An ecosystem of apps and developers will also have to grow up around HoloLens for it to be commercially viable. But from what I saw Friday, this is well beyond experimental technology. The potential is there for some serious disruption in all industries.
One last point: If you get the chance, try HoloLens. It’s probably the coolest thing you’ll do this year.