Microsoft mixed reality: From a proof of concept to a real enterprise-class offering

One of the more interesting presentations at Microsoft Build was immediately followed by a stream from Google I/O on the same subject. I believe this transitions HoloLens from more of a proof of concept into a real product. I also think this takes us far closer to having AR become a major aspect of our collaboration efforts – and the possibility we can travel far less physically and far more virtually. Another big part of the coming big step into our virtual future.

hololens app
Microsoft

[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author]

One of the leading technologies from Microsoft is HoloLens, now in its second iteration. Microsoft recognized early on that the way to bring AR to market (at least initially) was to:

  • Create the strongest solution technology would allow
  • Target it at research and business opportunities that would pay for it
  • Avoid the typical mistake of bringing out a consumer-focused product like Google Glass that was both too expensive for that audience and unable to meet their expectations.

I’m really not a fan of bringing out products at any price that aren’t adequate at any price…yet that’s often how these new technologies come to market.

At Build this year, Microsoft was showcasing their advancements in this category.

The birth of touch

HoloLens 1 required a lot of mouse emulation, which was an interesting way to start given the limitations of the technology and users’ familiarity with using mice. But it was a huge pain in the butt. With HoloLens 2 you can interact more naturally because the cameras in the device allow you to interact more naturally with your hands.

The next step would require haptic gloves to give you a better, literal feel for what you are touching, but this initial change lowers the time it takes to come up to speed with the device.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 completing the solution

With the initial release of HoloLens the development tools were all but non-existent. Microsoft Dynamics 365 changes this and provides a framework for application development that effectively reduces the time to release for a new application from months to days. In effect, this changes the product from what was basically a proof of concept to a full offering. I could argue that HoloLens II is actually the first version that was a complete product as a result…not for what it is, but for the capability of the tools that surround the platform.

While there aren’t a huge number of apps yet, they are up to around 100. With this tool the proliferation of these apps should increase substantially. PTC (Vuforia) is even offering training on the product and the firms are working very closely to blend their respective tools to create far more interesting collaborative offerings. IBM [Disclosure: IBM is a client of the author] is even looking at it, because it’s providing real value for the firm as they move to offer their own solutions around the device and platform. (It’s also interesting to note that IBM and Microsoft appear to be getting along really well at the moment.)

Another area of expansion is in medical schools and hospitals for training (an effort mostly backed by companies like Philips). They’re also doing pre-operation work with the product and looking at using it during operations to both better monitor the patent and to more accurately perform the actual operation.

This transitions the solution to a SaaS offering as customers start building out their own unique implementations. Much of this work is managed and hosted in the Microsoft Azure cloud.

Device

The initial product looked like it was designed by Porsche. It was attractive, but it also looked more like a consumer product rather than an industrial product, which typically isn’t a good idea. Because it was more of a proof of concept in its initial form, I don’t think this hurt the product much. While the latest iteration isn’t as attractive, it’s more robust, more comfortable, and with a flip up visor more practical. It also should hold up far better in actual use.

Azure Mixed Reality/IoT services

Microsoft has rolled Azure behind HoloLens hard. Three of the most interesting services are Azure Digital Twins, Azure Spatial Anchors and Azure Remote Rendering. Azure Digital Twins creates a digital twin of a real product, which can be explored and worked with in virtual form. Azure Spatial Anchors locks down real-world things in the 3D space so that people using the tool can far more easily place virtual objects in and around them. Azure Remote Rendering allows the system to send critical data defining an object to a remote user’s headset, which then renders the result, thereby lowering the bandwidth of the transmission while still assuring the recipient gets a rich image to work with.

Blending

One interesting and pretty new focus is for solutions to blend high end head mounted tools like HoloLens and smartphone solutions – which currently dominate the consumer space – into a more blended experience. This is interesting because it allows people without the HoloLens device to participate and interact in the same app with people who do have one. This was made particularly clear during the demonstration of HoloLens 2 and Spatial on top of Microsoft Teams for collaboration, in which remote employees using HoloLens could interact in a room with both HoloLens and smartphone users.

This provides a far more practical and affordable solution for a firm that wants to use this technology but doesn’t want to buy a HoloLens headset for everyone in the room (which is almost always the case). While this does limit interaction, if you think about a typical business meeting, the only people that really need to interact with the presentation are the presenters. Everyone else just needs to see what’s going on. This opens the door to the use of connected, lower-cost AR headsets that just show the image and provide a more natural viewing experience for those not presenting, 

Another kind of blended solution was showcased: Using a camera in the room focused on whatever the presenter’s looking on renders the speaker transparent. This isn’t an unusual problem for folks both in the room (depending on where they’re seated) and those viewing the thing remotely. It also looked surprisingly cool.

I’ve seen the future and it is unreal

It is clear, despite the Google Glass debacle, that augmented reality has become a real solution for business. While today this is mostly focused on engineering prototyping and training (mechanical, electrical and particularly civil/architectural), it’s starting to evolve into far broader areas like collaboration, medical practice and general education. In parallel to this business-oriented evolution we also have AR events like Pokémon Go and, the latest, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, which has received some impressive reviews.

This market will get a ton more interesting when these two trends combine, and we truly can span both the corporate and consumer segments (and we didn’t even talk about some of the incredible advancements in the military). At some future point we may no longer be able to tell what is real and what is virtual – and we may not care.

I want to close with a callout to the Microsoft folks for providing a room to watch the keynote for the competing show from Google going on at the same time in California. What is fascinating is they are showcasing their implementation of AR, which allowed people to better navigate their show. They couldn’t possibly know that their keynote started right after the HoloLens briefing, but I’m turning up my privacy settings on my Android phone just in case.

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