Do we only see a revolution after it has passed?
This is something I’ve wondered time and time again. I am so incredibly fortunate to have been born a few years before the turn of the millennium. Sony’s Walkman MP3 player had broken barriers for mobile computing and the laptop would soon do the same. I don’t know a world where tech companies aren’t throwing jabs at each other during the Super Bowl Commercials. I don’t know a world where you don’t tremble before buying the “latest” gadget because you know it will be the “latest” only for a few months. I don’t know a world where every idea you’ve ever had that you thought was original isn’t gearing up for sale by a promising start-up. Well, I think I realize it now. We are deep in the midst of a technological revolution. This is the big-daddy version of the industrial revolution, and it is showing no signs of slowing down. This reality was never clearer to me then while tuning in to the last segment of Microsoft’s January 21st Windows 10 Event.
Microsoft changed the personal computer landscape when young Bill Gates launched Windows 1.0 with his minimumally employed engineers. The interfaced looked like our modern BIOS settings today….. Very minimal, and very….. Boring. But in actuality, the overly simplistic nature of Windows 1.0 was the beginning of personal computing. Steve Job’s early contributions also did much of the heavy lifting to get personal computing off of the floor. The advances in user experiences and complex computer tasks shot out of the blue and exponentially expanded over two decades. The chips that ran the operating systems shrunk in size while improving in performance at over 20% efficiency per two years. The pixel densities of LCD’s increased to the point where a “pixel” became more imaginary of a substance then Pixie herself. But ever sense Windows 1.0, personal computing has maintained a constant. And this constant has started to grow on us unsettled modernists.
Almost all computing devices utilize a display. A display is the physical translator that sits between the complexities of the computer language and the average user. And it has served a great purpose so far and will continue to do so, but much is the fear and the concern that staring at a display (no matter how interesting the content) ends up essentially blocking us off from reality. There are those, comically, that have suffered from being in front of a screen so obsessively that they’ve become zombified and numb to reality lol, and confession time… sometimes I think I fit quite nicely into that category. If not that, you and I definitely suffer from giraffe-neck-texting disorder, which is when you spend 60-80% of your time in public staring down at your phone. In a way, mobile devices have become a social barring between fellow humans, not in the sense that we don’t communicate with one another. Rather, we tend to only engage with those that exist in our cyberspace as opposed to our physical space. Our cyber enviornment has become more “comfortable” to be in then our local enviornment. And I find that distasteful. So what’s the solution?
Augmented reality. In short, augmented reality is the best of reality and the best of personal computing smashed together into one experience. For example, imagine walking around downtown looking for a good place to grab a bite to eat. So you look around and you start seeing digital pop up icons on the sidewalks. You see names of restaurants, ratings, and cuisine details displayed in your “real” experience of the city in live time. This is augmented reality. Think Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S AI (artificial intelligence) and AR (augmented reality) system…. Augmented reality has been Hollywood’s playground and technologist’s dreams for almost a decade now. The ability to blend a computer interface into your reality is perhaps the height of technological wonder for our generation. There have been many prototypes of course, but the difficulties in building a full blown AR system are immense. There are AR apps that you can download today for your phone. These apps use your back camera as your “reality” display and it might display information over restaurants in the area depending on where you are pointing your phone’s camera in live time. This gives the augmented reality effect…. But this is not the full effect that we are looking for. We are looking for not just an app that performs one specific task but a whole platform that third party developers can unleash their creativity on. We aren’t just looking for a display, this is what we are trying to avoid. We want the seamless overlaying of information over what our eyes are picking up. And this is why augmented reality has been such a difficult task to complete. But I would have never expected augmented reality to become a reality a few days ago when Microsoft announced HoloLens.
While the rest of the world was abandoning Google Glass, playing around with Virtual Realty headsets, and sharing heart beats with people on their smart watches, Microsoft had been working on a project that would change the world for almost 7 years now. The amount of secrecy they put into making HoloLens is appalling given Microsoft’s horrible reputation for keeping secrets. But they hid the “Project B” in plain sight right under their visitor center. That in and of itself deserves a round of applause. These are called Hollo-LENS for a reason. The bug looking eyes are actually just tinted lens, but seeing out of them is just like looking out into the clear…. The device is rigged with sensors. The project was actually what Xbox Kinect was supposed to be, but Kinect spanned from it and they just continued to work on HoloLens in secret. So much of the sensing technology in HoloLens is reminiscent of the Kinect. Where this differs is the implementation of an advanced eye tracking technology. The HoloLens tracks your eye movement at incredibly precise changes in speed and location of your retina. This is probably the hardest obstacle with Augmented Reality. Because we are mobile, what we look at changes appearance depending upon where we are in relation to it. If HoloLens wants to show a 3D dog to us it has to be able to change the Dog’s representation as we walk around the dog and pan around…. This is why knowing where the retina is in relationship to a digital rendering is so important in augmented reality. But this obstacle is concurred with HoloLens, which is why the the holographic effect is so pronounced. HoloLens is by far the best shot I have ever seen to get Augmented Reality right.
Why do I say that? Well besides the fact that the technological problems with augmented reality have almost all been conquered with HoloLens, HoloLens runs a full version of Windows 10. The device is not an accessory to a computer or to a video game console. HoloLens is itself a computer, and it runs Windows 10, and Windows 10 runs on it. What this means is that each and every Windows 10 application is fully functional in the augmented interface. This means that you can put your digital calendar on the refrigerator, place a recipes app on the kitchen island, keep Netflix playing over the fireplace, and place your music app floating to the right of you wherever you go in your house. HoloLens makes you’re whole house your desktop background, and so you can actually multitask blending reality with digital.
The promo video for HoloLens is so amazing that many folks have presumed that Microcrosoft added some “magical” touches to the interface and performance. Well, I thought that might had been the case too, until they did a live demo on stage….
And this is when my excitement reached a high. I read some reviews of the event from The Verge, Engadget, and CNet afterwards, and apparently Microsoft took the attending journalists down to the secret laboratory to try HoloLens for themselves. They could only take with them pencil and paper and they did the demos that are shown in the promo video… these include: Mars walking, Skype helping, Motorcycle modeling, MinecraftJ, and a little bit of navigating Windows 10. The general consensus that I got from the folks that demoed it after the event was that HoloLens is amazing, one. And two, that HoloLens has crazy potential. Some bloggers said that the promo video doesn’t even do it justice because it is much more of a complete experience when you are looking through the lens yourself. And so yes I am prematurely convinced that this thing is the bomb. It’s still a prototype so the journalists were actually demoing a prototype version….think exposed circuitry, small motherboard and plastic. But the fact that Microsoft is this close to putting this thing in a store with a price tag and making the SDK available to all developers just blows my mind. I can now forgive anything they screwed up in the past 7 years as I can see how hard it would be to focus if you knew this was going on under the Visitor’s Center.
Microsoft made mention that they have built a SDK (software development kit) so that developers can make Augmented Reality apps for the HoloLens platform. Just imagine what will happen when game developers get their hands on this. Microsoft actually bought Minecraft a few months ago, and no one really understood why. But it has become quite obvious why in the past few days. HoloLens and Minecraft are a match made in heaven, and the promo video makes sense of that statement. This blog post is very difficult to write for me because there are so many things to write about loll. I am just picking one of the many things popping up in my head to mention. I cannot even begin to list all of the possibilities with HoloLens.
But I will say this. Microsoft owns 90% of the personal computing operating system market. They are the ones to blame for putting you in front of a screen for three decades. Many people in recent years have tried to place Microsoft into the “boring” tech company club along with IBM and Xerox. But not so fast folks, Microsoft is about to do what they did in the late 80’s all over again…. Stay tuned.
I encourage you to read Wired’s cover story of HoloLens. They were invited to try out HoloLens before the event with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.