This week I was invited to Microsoft’s offices near Oxford Circus to have a play with their newest gadget: the HoloLens.
This is Microsoft’s big new idea for augmented reality: a device that can project holograms onto surfaces in front of your eyes, while still allowing you to look at and interact with the world around you.
This makes it a very different experience from the virtual reality headsets that have become more common in recent months, like the Oculus Rift, or even the newly launched PlayStation VR for the gamers among you.
Rather than being completely immersed in a virtual world and cut off from our physical reality, the HoloLens has transparent glasses to allow you to see and talk to people around you while interacting with the holograms it generates.
The headset contains spatial mapping technology to quickly and efficiently process the environment that you see, with transparent holographic lenses sitting in front of your eyes.
It even has an extra headband to sit on the crown of your head in an attempt to alleviate some of the issues that VR headsets suffer from, where they start to feel heavy on the front of your face after extended use.
The device is also completely self-contained and untethered, so it doesn’t need a wired connection to any computer or smartphone.
Dan Hololens 4
I was shown the first developer kit for commercial businesses, for which Microsoft is now taking pre-orders. The company expects to start shipping the units in November this year – and one headset will set you back £2,719.
In a studio at the Microsoft office, I was walked through a number of demonstration apps that were loaded onto the headset.
One was a demonstration of a fictional watch brand, designed to show off to retail customers how they might be able to use HoloLens to sell a product.
Another saw a life-sized human body hologram appear in the room, which I could then manipulate to see the different biological systems inside, even blowing the heart up to a huge size so that I could walk around it and see how it works in intricate detail.
Finally, I was shown ‘Life in Holograms’, with a fictional living room set up with a number of different holograms, such as a television, a web browser, animations, pictures, and many more different things that could all be used seamlessly with the headset.
The only downside to all of this was the field of view, which at the moment is quite narrow. This meant, for example, that I couldn’t see the entire human body in my peripheral vision if I was up close – I would have to tilt my head up and down to do so.
Dan Hololens 1
Presumably, though, this is something that may continue to evolve as further iterations of the technology are developed.
The potential for construction is, I think, quite exciting.
Already, we could use HoloLens to pull 3D models out of BIM software and into our physical reality, allowing us to really bring to life what a building design looks like (see the video below of the work an American architecture firm is already doing).
The headset includes ‘world locking’, so that if you were working on a design and leave it sitting on a table before turning your headset off, the next time you turn it on, it will be sitting in exactly the same spot that you left it.
Multiple headsets can also be linked to allow more than one person to view the same hologram at once, too, to allow for collaborative working.
And who’s to say that it couldn’t even be used for training construction workers in future? After all, the anatomy app that I described earlier is already being used to train medical students in the US, so why not use HoloLens to train construction workers too?
It was an exciting glimpse of the future – and it proved that there’s far more to augmented reality than Pokemon Go.