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Developing with HoloLens: Decent hardware chases Microsoft's lofty augmented reality ideal

Mark Hachman | May 4, 2015
If you accept that Microsoft's HoloLens is a tool, you'll be delighted. But be wary of its followers, who seem to believe that it shall lead Microsoft to the promised land.

The HoloLens glass droops over your eyes, and was more than a little difficult to get aligned correctly — more so than the prototype hardware shown in January, which was adjusted by trained Microsoft employees. 

Part of the difficulty lies with the field of view, which is very roughly equivalent to what you might see on your phone if it were a few inches in front of your eyes. There's a substantial portion of your field of vision that can't pick up the holograms, at least with the new hardware; I would swear that the prototype offered a wider field of view, but I certainly could be wrong. (One suggestion might be to establish a "glow" at the periphery of the screen to indicate a hologram is nearby, and as an incentive to turn and find it.)

When it counted, the HoloLens worked well. The holograms were bright and colorful, with a resolution definitely lower than HD quality, but not too bad. And the ability for the HoloLens hardware to see and "scan in" real-world objects into virtual surfaces worked marvelously. With the HoloLens on, holograms take precedence, so you can barely see your hand or arm if a hologram is behind it. The real world is just a ghost haunting Microsoft's virtual space.

Look, Ma, I can code

Microsoft transformed a nearby hotel into a professionally designed "Holographic Academy," complete with workstations and chairs. Each pair of reporters was assigned a "mentor" to walk us through what Microsoft called the "Express Edition" of what was normally a four-hour session. Ours, "David" (he declined to give his last name), sat us down in front of a pair of workstations.

David, bless him, couldn't answer whether the HoloLenses were wirelessly connected — we downloaded the apps to the HoloLens via a USB cable — or how much memory was within them. "I just don't know," he said with a warm smile.

In all fairness, however, David was excellent, and all of the employees present seemed enthusiastic, well-trained, and eager to please.

The message was simple: It's easy to code for the HoloLens, with entire features and properties that can be adjusted using single lines of code. Microsoft asked us to work within the Unity framework, exporting the project into Visual Studio to be compiled and downloaded via a USB cable into the HoloLens. At each stage we enabled more features: gaze input, spatial sound, physics, and finally the ability to move the "stage" where the holograms took place to whatever real-world surface we wanted to.

The "app," as it were, was simple: A pair of small spheres — one appearing to be crumpled-up newspaper, the other a more abstract shape — hovered above a paper airplane leaning on the table, plus another surface. We learned we could tap the spheres to enable them to fall, and they would "roll" down to a giant virtual notepad that served as the stage for the digital objects. 


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