I’m floating in the middle of the solar system, watching the planets slowly revolve around me, idly flicking at the asteroids of the Kuiper Belt to see if I can get them to move.
It’s a very relaxing sensation. I even consider laying down to watch the planets orbit above me, but then decide that might be going a little too far. Instead, I straighten up from a crouch and laugh, take off the HoloLens headset I’ve been testing and hand it back to the Microsoft expert who has been politely watching me as I wave my hands apparently at random and occasionally giggle.
I’m guessing he must see this sort of behaviour quite a lot.
The HoloLens — comprising a headset a little heavier than a bike helmet with a built-in visor — is Microsoft’s take on augmented reality, and allows you to see 3D virtual objects as if they were part of the real world.
HoloLens differs from devices like Facebook’s Occulus Rift virtual reality headset in a couple of important ways. First, it doesn’t need to be tethered to a PC to work, which means a wearer can roam around while using it, as all the processing is done locally on what Microsoft calls a holographic processing unit. And second, it doesn’t block out the outside work like a VR headset: instead, HoloLens adds new elements like the aforementioned planets and asteroid belt to your existing environment — in this case, the demonstration suite in one of Microsoft’s London offices.
The virtual solar system is the third of three scenarios I’ve tested out. The first was just as impressive, if a little more down to a earth: a medical simulation that placed a full-sized body in front of me, and allowed me to strip it down to see organs and then blood circulating just by tapping my fingers together. I could walk around the figure as if it were standing in front of me, and peer into the different chambers of the heart as it pumped. Another scenario showed how HoloLens could be used for presentations using a mock-up high-end watch brand: the virtual watch sat on the real desk in the room, showing how HoloLens can mix digital with physical items.
A serious business
There’s another important difference that distances HoloLens from some of the other headsets around. It’s aimed primarily at businesses, rather than consumers or gamers.
The medical simulation I saw is being used by medical students at Case Western Reserve University to teach anatomy in a three dimensional environment. Volvo is using the headset to explain car features to customers, while construction company Trimble has been using it as part of the design process. And lift company thyssenkrupp is using the headsets to give engineers hand-free remote guidance by Skype when they are out fixing elevators.
HoloLens is not cheap: in the UK it will cost £2,719 for a ‘Development Edition’ or £4,529 for the ‘Commercial Suite’. Microsoft is gradually making the headset available in more countries — you can now buy it in the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand — having debuted in the US and Canada in March.
For what’s a relatively young technology, HoloLens pretty impressive. I instinctively wanted to reach out and touch the images (my hand, of course, simply passed though them — some kind of collision detection would make the experience even more impressive).
Images like the one above make HoloLens look more and less impressive than it really is.
The current model only allows you to see the virtual images through a limited ‘letterbox’ directly in front of you. Look the wrong way or let the headset move position and you can lose them, which means it’s not as immersive as other technologies that fill the whole field of vision. As the technology improves, that letterbox is likely to get bigger. Even so, my initial response was to be wowed: this is what science fiction has been telling us the future should look like for decades — bright, crisp, impossible images right before your eyes.
The headset itself is too heavy and cumbersome — but again that’s likely to change quite rapidly. Think of the difference between the first mobile phones and the smartphone in your pocket today.
Because there are no cables connecting you back to a PC you can roam (and not worry about tripping over your tether). As a teaching tool, the ability to see the human body working, to examine organs in 3D, is a remarkable experience. And there are certainly some clear industrial uses like design and prototyping, and repairs like the lift-fixing example.
Beyond that it’s hard to see how widespread it will become, at least for a few years.
For one thing, the size of the headset makes it hard to interact with other people while you’re wearing it. So while I can see uses in retail — to help shop assistants find the right product in a big store, for example — it would also be unnerving as a customer to see a shop worker striding towards you wearing such a rig. Pervasive usage of such technologies will have to wait for the sunglasses-sized model, or the contact lens, perhaps.
And yet, despite the wonder of floating at the centre of the solar system, or seeing inside a beating heart, I found it a little claustrophobic to be embedded within a virtual experience.
We must avoid a retreat into vivid personal worlds that preclude interaction with those around us, or allow us to block out others. That’s the risk: but I also see this is the start of something different, a new way of building and perceiving worlds.
Our imagination is limited and shaped by the tools we have: these 3D technologies will help us create new forms of art and remarkable new ways of telling stories and understanding the world: seeing really is believing.