SummAR of ‘17
I had just landed a summer job at Vincit and I was grinning like a maniac the moment I heard I would be working with Microsoft’s HoloLens. Growing up with computers and being interested in all sorts of gadgets, still not having had any previous experience with Augmented Reality (AR) glasses and now getting to work with the stuff that Sci-Fi adventures are made of, who wouldn’t be excited? Now that the premise has been set, let’s move on to the actual content.
Even though Augmented Reality is still young, the AR hype train is gathering momentum steadily, as more and more companies invest in the technology. Quite a few of the big players in Silicon Valley are already working on their own AR projects, including Microsoft’s HoloLens, Apple’s ARKit and rumoured AR glasses, Facebook’s AR image filters and Google’s ARCore and Tango to name a few. Microsoft is also blurring the line between AR and VR with Mixed Reality, allowing development of applications that work on both the HoloLens and the newly released Windows Mixed Reality headsets. At the moment, there are basically two sides to AR: head mounted displays (HMD) and phones.
Head Mounted Displays
The HMDs are the more immersive option of the two, though the products on the market at the moment are mostly development editions. The most popular (and seemingly most advanced) ones are:
- Microsoft’s HoloLens — Completely mobile HMD with all around good features
- ODG’s R-series smartglasses — The most compact of the three released products mentioned here
- Meta’s Meta 2 — The headset with the widest field of View at 90-degrees, needs to be tethered to a PC unlike the ODG products and HoloLens.
- Magic Leap — still unreleased and mysterious, but has generated lots of hype and got plenty of funding from investors. People seem to have high expectations for this one.
The AR phone applications are the more approachable and affordable option, with a wider target audience. Apple rolled out ARKit earlier this year, with Google following suit with ARCore a bit later. You can already find apps for trying out how IKEA furniture would sit in your apartment and getting measurements with your phone instead of a tape measure among others.
The first thing that drew my attention when I first tried HoloLens was the device’s Field of View, it felt fairly limited at just 30 degrees. I thought this might bother users, but I soon found out that I grew accustomed to it pretty quick and it didn’t seem bothersome anymore. The limited FOV does however impact the immersion and the wow –effect somewhat.
The main way of interaction with the device is through Gaze, a dot in the centre of your view, and a few hand gestures. If you don’t feel like tapping the air, there’s a clicker you can use instead of the hand gestures. I think that the hand gestures were quite intuitive and the tracking was excellent, the tracking area being impressive as well. Voice commands are another way of interacting with the device. By default, there are some target oriented commands like “Select”, which does the same thing as an “Air Tap” selection hand gesture, and some global commands for starting apps, shutting down the device and such.
HoloLens makes sense of its surroundings by drawing a spatial mapping mesh, which maps rooms and the shapes of furniture well, but isn’t detailed enough to capture the shape of a coffee cup for example. The meshes, holograms, applications, their locations and orientations are then saved to “Spaces”, which are linked to Wi-Fi networks, in the device’s internal storage.
I did some outdoors testing with the HoloLens and found out that the screen is bright enough for indoor areas, but outdoors on a sunny day the visibility is poor. On a good note, the device picked up voice commands really well despite minor traffic noises.
HoloLens’ spatial sound was a positive surprise, it manages to pinpoint sounds to their origin’s location well. It adds to the feeling of the holograms really being there in the physical world, and it can be used to draw the user’s attention to a desired location.
The device itself is a completely mobile, untethered headset with a battery life of about 2–3 hours in active use. It features an HD display for each eye, performance comparable to a high-end mobile device and six degrees of freedom tracking.
Most people I’ve seen try on the device have been impressed by the technology as a whole. Some of the people who have tried the device at our office have said that their eyes felt weird afterwards, especially if they used the device longer than what a quick demo takes. This was the case with me as well, but I didn’t notice it anymore after a couple of days of development. The comfortability of the experience depends on the quality of the application though, later on I’ll go through some points to keep in mind when developing HoloLens apps. The hand gestures felt more intuitive to some than others, and the size of the device surprised some people. It is quite large and doesn’t fit under a construction helmet for example.
The holiday season is almost here and while the warm(ish) days of a Finnish summer are long gone, I got to say that I’m left with a great experience of working at the Vallila office. During my summer job, I got the chance to attend the Microsoft Build Tour, which was in Helsinki for the first time this summer and I also got to take part in Vincit’s annual Team Building Seminar. This year the event took place in Berlin and roughly 200 vincitizens attended. It was a great opportunity to get to meet people from the other offices around Finland and get some insight into the company’s culture.
I feel like developing for HoloLens gave me a glimpse of the future and definitely piqued my interest towards AR glasses. While it’s clear that the HoloLens is still “just a development version”, it’s still impressive and you could think of it as a sign of great things to come.
Talking about things to come, in case you were hoping to get more insight about the development process itself, worry not, there’s a follow-up post coming your way in the near future.