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Game Changing Technology – The HoloLens

Imagine the Future with HoloLensThe HoloLens is Microsoft’s first holographic augmented reality device.  It is different from other virtual reality displays, such as Oculus Rift, in that it is designed as a fully untethered augmented reality device that is primarily business focused.  Being untethered it can be used as a mobile device.  As an augmented reality device it merges objects with existing physical space rather than recreating a totally virtual space.  These and other capabilities limit its gaming potential but make it a particularly interesting device for enhancing business outcomes across a broad cross section of business areas.

Using multiple processors, cameras, motion sensors, microphones and speakers jammed into a tiny headset, it provides a holographic view of virtual objects interacting with the real world.  To accomplish this, it must have the capacity to do real-time mapping of physical space and spatially integrate rendered three dimensional objects into that space.  An ability to share viewpoints and augmented space means that multiple users, each wearing a HoloLens, can visualize and operate in the same augmented reality.  Beyond that, the augmented space can be shared with users on traditional devices such as tablets or smart phones.

Because of its ability to enhance collaboration, improve visualization, reduce risks and increase productivity there are numerous potential opportunities for business adoption.   Visualization, where proposed objects can be virtually incorporated into an existing space, enhance a user’s ability to optimize design and reduce conflicts with existing objects.  The capability to collaborate around a shared visualization significantly improves communications and supports collaboration to rapidly adjust designs and overcome problems.  Interactive training can be performed by overlaying instructions on existing space or by creating virtual objects that can be interacted with.  Pertinent and timely information, based on what the user is looking at and interacting with, can be integrated into the augmented reality displays.  Finally, the technology has the potential to be used to control remote vehicles and robots while interacting with the world from the robot’s point of view.

It is important to note that, while we are discussing the HoloLens here, the underlying product that Microsoft is developing is a common API working as part of Windows 10.  This means that HoloLens is just the first device to use Window’s holographic API as its operating system.  This API for human and environment understanding will exist across all releases of Windows and operate across all devices within the limitations of each devices capabilities.  (Seth Juarez, 2015)  A powerful outcome of this is that all participants do not need to be interacting through a HoloLens. 

Remote meetings can be held with everyone interacting in the same virtual space even though some individuals are interacting through a desktop computer, a tablet or even a smartphone.  Mixed reality capture can allow individuals utilizing multiple platforms to share a real-time experience and have it captured to video for future review.  This has major potential to improve training, support communications and allow remote collaboration. 

So in a few years you might reach for a HoloLens if you want to know that a new piece of equipment will fit in the intended space and can be maneuvered into position.   You might grab a HoloLens to do a walkthrough of a property in another city and interact with your coworker who is physically doing the walkthrough as if you were there.  With a HoloLens, you could perform complicated maintenance on a piece of equipment while a specialist from the manufacturer collaborates with you from another place.  Sitting on an airplane you might don a HoloLens to create expanded work areas even when the person in front of you puts their seat back.   As a planner or designer you might choose to show decision makers and management what a new design will look like using a HoloLens and mixed reality capture.  If you need to create an indoor map of your facilities, you might walk through your facility and let the HoloLens create a full model of each space.  In the field, your company’s agents could use a HoloLens to show a landowner what a new powerline, compressor station or other build out will look like from any point on the landowner’s property.  Or, you could model a 100-year flood by looking over the river valley while wearing a HoloLens.  A little further out a HoloLens, attached to a robot working in confined or dangerous spaces, will allow direct, as if you are there, control over the robot’s view and movement.  The potential of augmented reality is limited only by one’s imagination and availability of data.

The logical question to ask at this point is when will this technology be stable, robust and able to provide the promised return.  The answer is always a moving target but we can get an idea based on present announcements and capability reviews.  Microsoft is releasing the HoloLens, Developer Edition in the first quarter of 2016.  This is being marketed only for developers and is not promoted as an end-user tool.   They claim, however, that application development is straight forward since the HoloLens offers extended holographic capabilities within the framework of the Windows 10 API.  Microsoft suggests that the learning curve for developers is small and any developer with a knowledge of mobile applications should have no trouble integrating the HoloLens into applications. 

A realistic adoption profile for an organization may be the acquisition of a few augmented reality devices in about 18 months to support collaboration around maintenance activities.  This could be followed by the inclusion of these devices in video conference rooms to provide more useful remote meetings.  These uses all take advantage of the ability to improve collaboration but are largely stand-alone and don’t require major changes to business processes.  By the end of 2016 design teams may want to test the HoloLens’s ability to create realistic augmented reality.  Being able to visualize, in three dimensions, during planning and design as well as creating realistic videos of the augmented reality scenes will enhance planning, design and communications.

It is important to note that all of the applications mentioned above utilize the HoloLens in a relative reference plane.  This means that the user is relating to objects in augmented reality that are placed relative to the real objects as sensed by the HoloLens.  Any reference to the location in the real world is based on the user’s sense of place and not on the application’s ability to place the objects in an absolute earth based reference system.  In other words, an application utilizing a relative reference plane cannot tie an object that it perceives in the environment to the equivalent real world object.

This is significant in that HoloLens acting in this fashion does not allow a direct link to all of the information that may be stored on an object.  For example, a HoloLens user may see and identify a valve on a pipe.  It will be recognizable as an object but the application will have no way to identify it as a valve and access information such as it being a steam valve that is presently open.  To have this capability either the valve would need to be electronically tagged or the real world location of the valve would need to be ascertained and matched to a location stored in a spatial database.

Most organizations with infrastructure have spatially located their outdoor assets.  Few have undertaken equivalent programs to locate indoor machinery and assets.  Until this happens the HoloLens and applications that utilize a HoloLens interface will not have the ability to access and integrate with the broad range of data that companies maintain on their indoor assets.  This is a significant issue since one of the big potential uses of augmented reality is providing location based services where a user gains access to all of the data stored in company databases relating to objects in the vicinity of the user.

Creating this link requires indoor positioning capabilities in all indoor areas that will support augmented reality combined with the geolocation of all assets.  For most organizations this will be a multi-year activity and will be the limiting factor preventing the company from taking full advantage of the promise of augmented reality.  This makes indoor positioning and the geolocation indexing of all indoor assets an important precursor to the adoption of augmented reality to improve planning, design, operations and maintenance of facilities.

References

Bright, P. (2015, October 6). Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition: Coming Q1 2016 for $3,000. Retrieved from arstechnica: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/10/microsoft-hololens-development-edition-coming-q1-2016-for-3000/

Colaner, S. (2015, April 30). Microsoft HoloLens, Hands On: Promising Productivity, Little Panache. Retrieved from tom'sHardware: http://www.tomshardware.com/news/microsoft-hololens-hands-on,29027.html

Rene Millman, A. S. (2015, October 6). Microsoft HoloLens: release date, rumours, specs & pricing. Retrieved from ITPro: http://www.itpro.co.uk/mobile/24780/microsoft-hololens-release-date-rumours-specs-pricing-3

Seth Juarez, A. K. (2015, April 30). Developing for HoloLens. Retrieved from Channel 9 : https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2015/C9-08