By Nicola Wright
Virtual and Augmented Reality are hot-button topics in the IT world right now; immersive, wearable tech is being touted as the future of computing, and almost every tech company is trying to get in on the action.
Microsoft is no exception. In early 2016, Microsoft unveiled the HoloLens, its self-contained, mixed reality computer. Unlike the company’s Windows Mixed Reality VR visors, the HoloLens doesn’t simply project images from another machine; HoloLens is the machine. The processor, battery, cameras and sensors are all built into the headset, alongside smartglasses which generate augmented reality images, overlaid onto your real-life surroundings.
With the HoloLens, you no longer need a computer tower, a screen or a keyboard to use your “computer”. Boasting more processing power than the average laptop, the HoloLens essentially compresses your office into a pair of glasses that you can use anytime, anywhere.
It’s easy to imagine how this futuristic new technology can come in handy if you’re Iron Man, or Captain of the Starship Enterprise, but HoloLens technology is already beginning to quietly creep into the everyday work lives of us non-billionaire superhero types too.
German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, for example, employs HoloLens technology to design custom stair lifts. The HoloLens lets their technicians map their customers’ existing staircase more accurately, and send an exact virtual replica back to their designers. By capturing accurate data, making it available to multiple departments, and being able to better visualize their designs, the company is able to deliver custom products to their clients four times faster than before.
The HoloLens is clearly a staggering piece of kit, and with Microsoft’s HoloLens team reportedly already working on a more advanced 3.0 edition for release in 2019, the hardware is making leaps and bounds. But, just like the Windows Phone, the HoloLens will live or die by the apps that run on it, and will have to offer more than floating sharks to make a real impact.
Luckily, though the HoloLens is still in its infancy, we’re already beginning to see seeds of potential change as the product evolves. With the HoloLens’ Development Edition in the hands of programmers and creators around the world, new apps are hitting the HoloLens Store every day; apps that are turning these space-age possibilities into practical, valuable programs that could, in time, completely revolutionize the way we live and work.
While apps like Potato Heads — a program that literally replaces the heads of people around you with potatoes, in case you hadn’t worked that out — may win in the novelty factor stakes, it’s how HoloLens handles the rudimentary tasks of your working day that’s really important for its longevity. In order to foster the innovative and productive workplace of the future, HoloLens first needs to be able to capably tackle the foundational tasks of our workday; tasks like checking email and creating documents, so we can turn our attention to the bigger issues.
What we’ve seen so far is just the start for Microsoft’s relationship with mixed reality, and with apps like Outlook and Microsoft’s Office productivity suite already available for HoloLens, Microsoft is clearly devoted to taking its vision of digital transformation into a new realm. So, what might the post-HoloLens workplace look like?
For many modern workers, Microsoft Office is the beating heart of business productivity. Where would today’s workplace be without ever-faithful staples like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint?
The omnipresent nature of Office has always worked in its favor; almost universally familiar to computer users, it’s not surprising that Microsoft wouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel with its Office HoloLens apps, particularly when users already have such revolutionary new hardware to get to grips with.
Being the steadfast old workhorse that it is, there isn’t a huge amount that HoloLens can bring to Word at this time, other than the obvious benefit of being able to work from an infinite number of screens at once. The real magic for Office is going to come from Excel and PowerPoint.
PowerPoint presentations have already been given new life thanks to HoloLens, offering users the ability to present both substantially and physically mammoth reports to viewers anywhere in the world. But in the not-so-distant future, we may see developments allowing reports and animations from PowerPoint to step off the screen, and become fully formed 3D objects that can be viewed and interacted with from all angles. Similarly, the potential to create holographic charts and visualizations with information from Excel could revolutionize the way we use and consume data in the workplace.
As far Microsoft Word goes, HoloLens makes perusing documents a breeze, but when it comes to creating them, HoloLens has a way to go before we’re producing information with the speed and simplicity of a traditional computer.
The headset uses a series of “pinching” gestures and held gazes that take the place of a mouse, but there isn’t yet a truly functional holographic keyboard out there for the HoloLens. There are several keyboard apps available, but currently, these don’t support two-handed touch typing the way a corporeal keyboard does. At present, the process involves “air-tapping” the virtual keyboard one letter at a time to generate text in whichever HoloLens app you’re using.
Far quicker than the virtual keyboard option is dictation; Microsoft Office apps already feature the ability to recognize and transcribe speech to a pretty impressive level of accuracy, and with machine learning being increasingly infused into Microsoft’s products, this feature will only get better. But for those who still like to feel the click-clack of keys under their fingertips, HoloLens users can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to their headset and type the (sort of) old-fashioned way.
In the future, however, we’ll hopefully see a holographic keyboard which enables users to type with the speed and sensitivity of an analog keyboard. Microsoft’s SwiftKey mobile keyboard has a feature they call Flow, which, with the help of predictive AI, generates text by gliding a single finger across an on-screen keyboard.
Although HoloLens may bring in a wider range of control gestures in the future, with this swiping style already being invested in by Microsoft, it’s possible that a future virtual keyboard would use this technique, rather than ten-fingered typing as we know it. So maybe, when future-you is watching a HoloLens wearer typing their novel in the park, their augmented reality typing will look more like conducting an orchestra than hammering away at an invisible keyboard.
Outlook Mail was one of the first official Microsoft apps to arrive for HoloLens in Summer 2016, becoming the world’s first holographic email and calendaring app in the process.
Outlook Mail for HoloLens looks and works exactly like its desktop counterpart, except you can put it wherever you want it, at whatever size you want it, and is controlled though HoloLens’ signature hand gestures.
Just like all HoloLens programs, your inbox and calendar can be pinned on a wall, or in mid-air, so they’re constantly open and accessible while you work on myriad other apps. And because the HoloLens headset is untethered to any physical location, your inbox can go wherever you go, even if you’re moving around the office, so you never miss a thing.
Outlook Mail also supports speech recognition, so answering an email on the go is as easy as tapping reply and dictating your response.
As more businesses adopt teamwork and task management apps that allow users to chat and collaborate in real-time, such as the HoloLens-ready Microsoft Teams, we may see traditional emails becoming side-lined in the future. But until then, HoloLens allows you to keep your inbox closer than ever.
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Primarily a chat-based collaboration product, Teams’ main function is to facilitate teamwork and promote productivity. A relative newcomer to the collaborative communications market, Microsoft first unveiled Teams last November, peddling it as a “chat-based workspace” which sought to build on the collaborative functions that it had been developing within Office 365. Rolling together the instant messaging features of Skype for Business, along with collaboration and online project management tools, Teams is Microsoft’s effort to provide a hub for modern teams to work.
Microsoft Teams already allows users to work together on documents from within a chat-based interface, but its integral integration with HoloLens takes that a step further with the use of augmented reality. HoloLens allows multiple users to share the same view, so co-workers in every corner of the world can communicate and collaborate in real-time.
With HoloLens, participants in video conferences and holographic group chats can have a “physical” presence, with HoloLens able to track a user’s movements and relaying them into the shared virtual space. Currently, these holographic representations have a bit of a mannequin-eqsue look about them, but there are already apps which let you personalize your HoloLens avatars. To that end, it’s not so far-fetched to think that live holographic projections of users could become a reality in the near future, especially considering that Microsoft flirted with this sort of tech with its Xbox Kinect. Which, on one hand, would mean that your weekly team briefings could look more like Jedi Council sessions, but on the other hand, you’d have to make sure to put on pants before dialing in.
Teams and Mixed Reality will help people work more closely together, no matter where they are. Say an engineer is working in the field and needs the help of colleague with some machine maintenance. By using the HoloLens, the two (or three, or four…) engineers can share a real-time view of the problem at hand, communicate directly and overlay holographic instructional images in real time, all the while keeping the remote engineer’s hands free to work.
Speaking of collaborating; ever tried to justify a change or suggestion at work when maybe you just had to be there? HoloLens lets you see through other people’s eyes. Okay, not through their eyes, but from their point of view. When viewing a design or holographic image through the HoloLens, you can save and share your exact view with other users, so they can not only see and hear the notes you’ve made, but can see exactly what you saw at the time of making that observation.
While its massive flexibility offers potential across all industries, HoloLens is an especially huge boon for manufacturing and design. With HoloLens you can give products a virtual spin without having to outlay costs for prototypes, visualize building designs, and sculpt 3D objects and send them to print.
During a demo at this year’s Ignite conference, we saw how car manufacturer Ford’s design and engineering departments were using the HoloLens and Microsoft Teams to collaborate on new vehicle designs.
Using a malleable holographic version of the car, Ford employees were able to view the product from all angles, make adjustments to the design, and see what real-world effect those changes would have without having to mock up an entirely new model car from clay. We also saw the team altering the size and shape of the car’s wing mirrors, and how Teams allowed the group to instantly see how that changed the mirror’s visibility range.
Being able to see and collaborate on a project instantaneously in a shared space eliminates time spent passing documents back and forth between departments, helping projects move forward faster, and improving cohesion between teams.
Although HoloLens can be used to access Dynamics 365 through a web browser, we haven’t yet seen any true HoloLens integration with is Microsoft’s suite of business management applications.
A collection of ERP and CRM apps, Microsoft Dynamics, and its cloud-based incarnation Dynamics 365, could benefit enormously from AR functionality, and compatibility with HoloLens is something Microsoft will no doubt be working on.
Dynamics’ ERP apps are extensively employed in warehouse, logistics, and supply chain management, dealing heavily with inventory and picking, so the HoloLens would seem the natural successor of the point-and-scan handsets used by many companies to today.
Take order picking, for example. Most pickers will use barcodes and a handheld device to receive and submit data, but with a HoloLens ERP app, a picker could receive details of the order right in their field of view, without diverting their attention away from their surroundings and keeping their hands free. The HoloLens could even give them directions to the location of the inventory, and allow them to relay information to the ERP system with a flick of their finger; no cumbersome scanners required. In an Amazon Prime world where delivery speed is crucial, use of augmented reality could make a big dent in picking and processing times.
The HoloLens could also improve inventory management practices, providing users with information on stock levels, order statuses and recommended actions just by looking at an item.
When it comes to the financial management side of ERP, Dynamics for HoloLens might also provide what all business managers crave when it comes to data; visualization. Financial data can be painfully dull, and without a few charts and visual reports, people can often find it difficult to digest. Between Dynamics and new developments in Power BI, Microsoft has delivered a number of ways to make your business data more engaging, and reporting via HoloLens could offer the ultimate stage for data storytelling. Imagine how much more compelling the quarterly business recap would be if company bigwigs on every continent could come together in a virtual space, and see those all-important numbers in fully formed, interactive 3D?
It’s not only the ERP side of Dynamics that could utilize augmented reality. It also has huge potential for both back and front-end relationship management.
Thanks to Dynamics 365 for Sales and Dynamics 365 for Talent’s imminent integration with LinkedIn, users will soon be able to see additional data, including previous contact history, work history and previously shared documents, about associates within the Dynamics interface. This kind of feature is great for those occasions when you receive an email from someone and you just can’t remember if or when you’ve been in touch with them in the past; you simply hover over the sender’s name, and Dynamics pulls together all the available information about them and your previous interactions.
HoloLens could take that kind of relationship management tool even further. In fact, software company Cubera Solutions have already developed a HoloLens app that uses facial recognition to identify colleagues and provide information about them; super useful if you’re a forgetful person who has a lot of meetings.
Air New Zealand is already working on creating a Terminator-style HUD to help improve its customer experience. Currently in beta testing, the airline is developing a HoloLens app which would use facial recognition to provide flight attendants with data to help them offer better service. The app would not only identify the passenger the crew member was looking at, but also give additional information such as the passenger’s itinerary, allergies, and time since they were last offered a drink.
However, elegant as the first generation HoloLens may be, it’s still fairly sizable, and the vision of headset-wearing flight attendants milling up and down aisles, scanning you for signs of discomfort is currently pretty unsettling. It’s unlikely we’ll see this kind of utilization become more widespread until Microsoft has chiseled the headset down into something a little more discrete, and a little less RoboCop.
So while we might not be emotionally ready for omniscient cyborg cabin crew just yet, a tool that offers access to critical customer information without restricting movement could be massively useful for first-line workers.
So how might the HoloLens physically change our workplaces? Well, for starters, the HoloLens uses Mixed Reality, rather than Virtual Reality, meaning it places holograms into your real-world view without obscuring the world around you. With MR, rather than VR, providing the foundation of Microsoft’s plans for enterprise customers, it’s unlikely that the traditional office will be completely done away with in favor of a company-issued tub of goo. We’re not going full Matrix just yet.
With the HoloLens, the entire world is your desktop, allowing you to have as many screens as you want, as large as you want, without having any real screens at all. Being untethered to physical screens gives you enormous freedom when it comes to working on the go, since your office is contained within the HoloLens headset.
If you’re having a video conference and need to be on the move, your conference screen can follow you around. Never again will you have to dash out of a meeting to get some figures you forgot to print out; your computer is right there with you, and you can instantly share whatever you can see with others.
HoloLens also allows users to “world-lock” items, meaning they stay rooted in the same spot all the time. So if you don’t need to have your calendar app constantly in your eye line, but want to have it somewhere you can find it, you can stick it to a particular wall, and it’ll be there whenever you put on your HoloLens. (We’re not suggesting that you pin the YouTube app to the back of a bathroom stall door so you can watch cat videos, but in theory, you could absolutely do that.)
With workspaces that can move around with us, and all the screens you could possibly need contained within one headset, the post-HoloLens office of the future might contain nothing but enormous beanbags and a coffee machine. Maybe we won’t need offices at all.
A HoloLens headset for every team member might seem a huge expense (commercial editions of the HoloLens are currently $5,000 a pop) but when you eradicate the need for other equipment such as computer screens, projectors and other telecom peripherals it could be worth it in the long run.
So, while Mixed Reality might seem like a bit of a fad right now, the HoloLens is already making a reality of things that just 15 years ago seemed confined to science fiction. Hyper keen on integration within its stable of products, and with the ever-growing power of the cloud behind it, you can guarantee Microsoft will continue to develop ways to seamlessly blend its commercial services with its HoloLens hardware in the near future.
Get flexing your air-tap fingers; the HoloLens-powered workplace could be closer than you think.
The HoloLens Development Edition currently retails at $3,000 USD. That package gets you a Development Edition HoloLens headset, plus a Clicker, carry case, microfiber cloth, charger and USB cable.
The Development Edition is a fully working HoloLens, with all the features you need to experiment, develop, and play games. However, this edition does lack some additional enterprise-level support that you may need if you’re planning to use the headset as a fully-fledged commerical tool.
If you want to use the HoloLens as an out-of-the-box piece of hardware for your business or organization, you’ll likely need access to extended support from Microsoft, such as warranties and data encryption services.
The HoloLens Commercial Suite will set you back $5,000 USD; two thousand dollars more than the standard Development Edition. For this price, you get all the same hardware, but crucially you’ll also receive additional services to help you fully utilize HoloLens in your workplace.
The exclusive HoloLens Commercial Suite features include:
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