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Brian MacDonald
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Brian MacDonald

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On Thursday evening at Microsoft’s Build conference, I was treated to the “HoloLens Experience,” along with several other members of the press. Interested Build attendees could sign up for a half-hour demo of the device’s capabilities from a user perspective (which is what I did), or a 90-minute developer’s session called “holographic university,” which involved coding and seeing the results in 3D space.

The Experience
The experience was carefully choreographed from start to finish, including a walk from the convention center to a nearby hotel, where Microsoft took over most of two floors for their demo. We were required to surrender all technological devices for safekeeping, so no one could record the experience, aside from a few shots of the product from behind glass. 

The first part of the experience was similar to the demo you saw onstage at Build. A couple of designers interacted on a stage set up to look like a living room, with one onstage wearing HoloLens, and the other backstage on a PC. They interacted using Skype, which is a capability we haven’t seen before. They demonstrated how the video window appears to float in mid-air, tracking the wearer’s movements. Then they pinned the window to a table in the middle of the room, and demonstrated walking around it, as though it were a real object. After that, they shared a couple of 3D models from the PC to the HoloLens, sending a file back and forth, manipulating it in 3D space, resizing it, editing it, and ultimately saving it on a shelf in the real room. 

That was all prelude to the part we were really waiting for: the chance to try out the device ourselves. First, had a tutorial on how to “air-tap,” which is the HoloLens equivalent of clicking. It’s an intuitive enough gesture, but takes some practice to get right. If you’ve tried the gesture commands on the Kinect, the air-tap is similar. We also had our “intra-pupilary distance” measured, presumably for calibration of the device. Finally, we were split up into a separate hotel rooms, each with a “tour guide” and a technician, to try it out.

The hands-on portion started with the tour guide fitting the device over my head, and tightening it in place. Because you move your head while using it, the device needs to be fairly snug. The weight wasn’t appreciable, and while you never forget that you’re wearing it, it didn’t become too heavy or painful, in the short time I wore it. I deliberately wore my glasses during the demonstration, and the HoloLens fit comfortably over them, although I had to adjust the lenses’ distance from my eyes before I got it right. 

The technical demo involved Trimble’s SketchUp software, used for creating architectural models. The room held a maquette of a lot in downtown Denver, with the architectural drawing of a building to go in that space on a PC nearby – the same building that you saw if you watched the Build keynote. As in the video, I could manipulate the model on the PC screen (in a limited way), and the hologram followed suit. I could also drag the cursor “off of” the screen and click on elements of the hologram directly. As in the demo video, I also experienced the “street view” version of the building, and changed its appearance. I wasn’t able to move around the model, so I didn’t experience shifting angles, but it was clear and firmly anchored to the space in the real world. The street view projection was right in the center of my vision, completely obscuring what was behind it; there was no translucency. However, the projection field was limited and didn’t obscure my peripheral vision, so there was little sense of immersion, and no vertigo.

The next part of the demo took place in a part of the room made over to look like a brick wall. As in the partner spotlight, the wall became a cutaway in the HoloLens, revealing the electrical wires and plumbing, color-coded, but otherwise realistic. There was a Windows-style dialog box floating in space, anchored to a point on the wall. After I air-tapped the note, as in the spotlight, a virtual architect revealed the placement of a door in the space, which then opened up to show the area beyond the wall, but with an obstructing beam. The audio for the “architect” was clear and directional, appearing to come from the appropriate point in space. The same obstructing beam from the spotlight was present here as well, and the architect moved the door to solve the problem. 

The new placement of the door revealed another problem, a pipe running through that spot. My guide walked me through highlighting the pipe (as simple as looking at it), and then recording an audio note, presumably for some poor plumber to find tomorrow, requesting that the pipe be moved. Unfortunately, that was it, and before I knew it, the guide was removing the HoloLens and thanking me for my time. I was out of the Matrix.

What Worked Well
The most remarkable thing about the HoloLens is how natural it can feel. When a hologram obscures something in the real world, it obscures it completely, with no bleed or translucency. Objects that were anchored to surfaces never moved or jittered, as they sometimes do in the stage demos. That provided a real sense of weight to the holograms. The depth of field was also excellent; when the architect was showing me the door placement, I had no difficulty believing that I was actually looking through an opening in a brick wall and into the space beyond. Likewise, the cutaway view of the wall showed the electrical and plumbing, correctly proportioned exactly as I’ve seen then in the real world, if brightly colored.

I was surprised that the UI elements, in this case a couple of dialog boxes, felt very natural floating in space, and behaved exactly as I expected. The dialogs have the usual Windows buttons for minimizing and closing, and although my guide didn’t instruct me to click them, I did light them up just by focusing on them. The focus point appears to be a straight line emanating from the center of the wearer’s forehead, and I had no trouble at all focusing on a relatively small UI button. It only required looking, and HoloLens did the rest. 

I spoke to some developers who had the longer version of the experience, and they reported that the HoloLens mapped the space they were in perfectly, in a very short time. Holograms never sank into objects in the real world, and always stayed where they were put. They also reported that the audio conveyed space and distance accurately. They did have a chance to write some code and see the results, which they said was simple and intuitive.

What Remains to be Seen
While it feels ungrateful to point out shortcomings in the experience, there were a few. The projection field for the holograms seemed somewhat limited, less than 90 degrees in front of me. If I turned my head away from the hologram in front of me, as I did when my guide spoke, the hologram vanished. When the projection was supposed to cover a larger area, as in the wall cutaway, I could only see a portion of it at a time. I couldn’t see the electrical wiring and the plumbing at the same time, because they were several feet apart in real space. This may be the result of my wearing my glasses with the HoloLens, so that the projection lenses were further from my eyes than originally intended. I spoke to some users who had the longer experience, and they said they became used to the limited field very quickly.

I was also very limited in the gestures I could use; there was only the one air-tap. Impressive, to be sure, but I was itching to emulate Tony Stark and move holograms around, resizing them to my whim. The non-interactive portion of the demo showed other gestures, so I assume they’re coming.

Finally, the avatar for the architect was visually very basic; it was almost completely featureless, and bright blue. It did have a slight “swaying” animation that you’d expect from a video game character, so it didn’t seem completely inanimate. I suspect that a more realistic representation would run into uncanny valley problems, so Microsoft opted for minimalism.

What We Don’t Know Yet
As of now, Microsoft isn’t saying when the device will be available, other than “within the Windows 10 timeframe,” which translates to “sometime before Windows 11 comes out.” We don’t know how many units exist, although we were told that “over 100” were shipped to San Francisco for these demos. There’s also no hint of what it’s going to cost. Just as urgent, we don’t know when the SDK will be made available, although the people who had the developer experience indicated that it was well polished. Of course, all the technical specifications are a closely guarded secret. What information we do have is available in Todd Holmdahl’s blog post (http://lumiaconversations.microsoft.com/2015/04/30/build-2015-a-closer-look-at-the-microsoft-hololens-hardware/)

Fulfills the Promise
When I saw the first HoloLens demos in January, I thought what many people thought at the time – that this was a well-orchestrated demo of a product that was years away from practicality. What I saw today was a device that delivers on most of what was promised in that demo, and is certainly well beyond what I thought would be possible at this time.
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Addendum: Talking to a lot of folks this morning who had the experience, and the "limited field of view" complaint comes up almost immediately in every discussion. People who tried it in January are reporting that the field is narrower now than it was then. People have likened it to "looking through a periscope." Paul Thurrott's post has the best description of the problem: https://www.thurrott.com/windows/windows-10/3251/hands-on-with-a-near-final-microsoft-hololens?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed
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I imagine there is some percentage of the tech conference crowd that likes going to dark, noisy bars, but I'm not among them. I suspect that's not even the majority of attendees. What would you prefer?
 
Conference parties shouldn't all be about screaming loudly in bars. Here is Part 1 of my thoughts on organizing social events for conferences: https://medium.com/coding-culture/c3feb4850e5f

Thanks +Stephanie Liu and Google Developers Women Techmakers for being such a big inspiration!

#FITCWMM  
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Thanks for the re-share!
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Most of this article seems pretty accurate to me, having worked from home for about 14 years now (mostly self-employed, but not always). And I pretty much always get dressed before working, although perhaps a bit more casual than I would wear to the office. I've always found that the biggest risk of working from home is having access to the contents of your kitchen at all times. I also have access to my home gym whenever I want it, but that never seems to work the same way.
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And this is the video from Thursday at #fluentconf, which I enjoyed a bit more. Perhaps I'm a sucker for infographics in music videos.
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Photos from  #fluentconf  2014. I think I met every last one of these people. Great content, excellent speakers, and awesome attendees.
Sets let you organize your photos on Flickr. Explore the 168 photos in this set.
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Scott Hanselman is my new personal hero. I aspire to one day giving a talk this entertaining.
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That's a great presentation.
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I think this webcast may be of interest to some of my friends. The issue of civility has been coming up a lot in tech circles lately, and although it's a shame that there's a problem here at all, there obviously is one, and we have to talk about it if we're going to fix it.
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Interesting discussion here: Is your GitHub profile an important part of your CV?
 
PROTIP: If you are a programmer and are going to look for a job in the near future, make sure that  your Github presence reflects what you want them to know about your skills. If they have any questions about your skills after the interview is over, they will go to your Github account to get the answers that they need. 
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Now this is good data analysis. Observations:
* The Phillies/Pirates line runs right down the middle of Centre County, as I've known since college.
* Kinda sad to be an A's fan. (Or a Mets fan, but that goes without saying.)
* The writers may have had a little too much fun with this article.

I'd love to see something similar on college football; perhaps in the fall.
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One of these, please. As soon as humanly possible.
 
Designing a timeless smartwatch http://vrge.co/1lENsu8
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Random thought from #fluentconf  -- I thought the videos that showed before the keynotes were pretty cool, but then again, I'm a 40something white guy, so what do I know about cool? This is the one from Wednesday...at first, I enjoyed the song for a bit, then I realized I was spending more time thinking about how the effect was accomplished than listening to the music, and then I realized I was in a room full of developers who were almost certainly doing the same thing.
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No. Not my personal theory, I actually went and found out the facts.
Floor on wheels? An engineering no-no. The walls look static because they move in parallel to the camera, making it seem like the walls are static and the floor is moving.
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Last week, I wrote a blog on debugging for beginners. Faye Williams had more to say on the subject, and I thought she should say it on our blog. It's good stuff, going into more detail than I did.
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