HoloLens enterprise apps are now a reality

Real-world uses are emerging, but to gain broad deployment the HoloLens headsets and related gear must become a lot cheaper

HoloLens enterprise apps are now a reality

Microsoft unveiled its HoloLens augmented-reality device more than two years ago. Taking augmented reality a step further than overlaying data on a screen image, HoloLens uses its sensors to anchor computer-generated 3D objects in the real world, putting them on walls, sofas, tables, and so forth.

In those two years, HoloLens went from a research prototype to developer devices, then a fully supported enterprise headset. We’re now seeing the first enterprise applications. Taking advantage of 3D development tools like Unity and the Universal Windows Platform tools in the latest Windows 10 SDK, these new apps go a lot further than the initial demos, with larger, more complex models and much more interactivity via voice and gestures.

Much of that improvement is due to a greater understanding of the limitations of HoloLens hardware. It’s not the fully immersive environment that the videos of some of Microsoft’s first on-stage demos showed. Instead, HoloLens apps give users a relatively narrow field of view, an approach that’s very similar to the heads-up displays in military aircraft. (The reason for the small field of view: the constraints of the holographic lens used to overlay imagery onto the real world.)

HoloLens headsets also are not as powerful as computers because they use the slower but more power-efficient Atom processors with custom silicon to deliver 3D imagery. Although you can play games with it, a HoloLens headset is far better suited to modeling and displaying fixed environments.

Going hands-on with new enterprise apps in HoloLens

As the enterprise release of HoloLens starts rolling out, Microsoft has been working with its partners to demonstrate new applications that show off its utility. Instead of Minecraft, Microsoft is now showing off architecture tools, power plant monitoring, and aircraft maintenance training. It’s an important step forward because it shows HoloLens is starting to address many of the enterprise scenarios that till now have required custom augmented-reality hardware often tethering users to stationary computers.

Much of the utility of HoloLens comes from its free-space capabilities. It’s a standalone device that’s spatially aware, so a model remains fixed in place as you walk around it, and you can step forward and back and look from left to right, quickly overcome the HoloLens headset’s field-of-vision limitations. For example, I could see the whole of a model of the main Dubai power plant by standing across the room from the table where it was anchored. If you can’t see something, move your head or take a few steps. We’re used to computers that stay in one place, so it’s still a novelty to have one that comes with you, while the application you’re using stays fixed in the middle of a room or hangs from a wall.

One of the more fascinating demonstrations I’ve seen recently was put together by construction consultancy Trimble, building on its acquisition of Google’s SketchUp 3D design software. In its demo, a building design created in SketchUp was dropped into a model of a section of downtown Denver. Changes I made to the drawing were reflected in the model, and perhaps more interesting, changes made using HoloLens gestures were reflected in the drawings. Once the model had been finalized, additional details were applied on a computer, taking it from sketch to a fully rendered architectural model.

Trimble’s tool showed off new features Microsoft has recently added to HoloLens, including the ability to add quick recordings called AirNotes to a model. AirNotes can be attached to spatial information, so you can, for example, use them to detail changes that might need to be made to an architectural drawing or where a change has been made. Trimble’s demo was also the first demo since the original NASA Mars rover navigation tool that let me drag a cursor off a PC and onto the HoloLens model.

Another demo I tried out showcased HoloLens as a training tool, using it to show Japan Air Lines engineers key features of the engines on their new Boeing 787 aircraft. With a full-size engine pinned to the wall of a room, I could see specific parts and trace connections between components that would have been hard to see on a desktop PC screen. Engineers could use a tool like this to diagnose problems, overlaying engine telemetry data on the model, guiding them to out-of-spec components before they fail, and quickly matching the image to the actual engine in front of them.

Taking augmented reality further than today’s HoloLens

Augmented reality is likely to become an important tool for training and for visualization. Thus, Microsoft has good reason to make it both affordable and widespread, with low-cost headsets and a cheaper, more capable HoloLens. An application like the aircraft engine maintenance demo needs to become a tool that all the engineers in a hanger can use, allowing them to see engine telemetry in physical form and easing the process of getting an aircraft back in the air. After all, a plane on the ground is a cost; it only makes money when it’s carrying passengers.

HoloLens is only part of Microsoft’s augmented-reality portfolio. Partnerships with hardware companies are bringing HoloLens’ position and room geometry sensors to relatively low-cost VR headsets. Able to fix their location in a room, these headsets will let users interact with Windows Holographic 3D applications using standard PCs. Although developers will need to make changes to allow for a larger field of view, cheaper devices should bring augmented-reality applications to a wider group of developers and users.

At $5,000 for an enterprise headset, HoloLens isn’t cheap, even with the fact it includes support. Giving developers and designers $300 headsets attached to their PCs is reasonable, so they can build and share augmented-reality environments without significant additional costs. Instead of one or two devices in a company, there could be 10, 20, or more.

A focus on these lower-cost devices and on the tools and software that support them makes sense as the cause of a rumored delay in the next generation of HoloLens hardware, along with rumors that Microsoft is skipping a planned second-generation device. I certainly hope that’s why!