"Mixed Reality" for the Enterprise Is Here

The mobile application revolution took off in 2008, when Apple allowed third-party applications for the iPhone. While it's way too early to say that ship has sailed, many companies and developers are looking for the next big thing.

That next big thing may be ersatz reality. The huge initial success of Pokemon Go brought augmented reality to the mainstream, and now Microsoft is enabling commercial application of this technology with its HoloLens headset. So far, it’s the only commercially-available device of its type.

HoloLens is a goggle, but unlike virtual reality headsets, it lets you see the real world around you and is not tethered to a computer. But it also differs from augmented reality devices like Google Glass: It doesn't just overlay information on the world, but can inject three-dimensional virtual objects that act like physical objects, obeying gravity and reacting to real surfaces around them. It's mobile, but is intended to be used indoors rather than as an out-and-about device. Think Jarvis in the Iron Man movies. This is what Microsoft calls “mixed reality.”

The HoloLens headset is a full Windows computer. As a result, it not only lets you interact with three-dimensional virtual objects, but with two-dimensional Windows Store applications that you can bring into your world as windows to place in your environment. For example, you might stick a video player app on a wall to make a virtual large-screen TV.

It's a misconception that HoloLens hasn't been released yet. While it isn't a retail product, Microsoft released a fully-supported commercial suite in August 2016, and enterprises are climbing on board.

Lowe's, for example, has two stores (soon to be five) where customers can start with a bare showroom kitchen and add virtual cabinetry, hardware, counter tops, and appliances. Japan Airlines is developing virtual jet engines to train mechanics on engines that haven’t even been built yet. The PGA Tour can project a whole golf course on the floor, allowing you to see the features in three dimensions as well as the aerial trajectories of various players' shots. Trimble has created an application that allows architects to inhabit the spaces they are designing, both before and during construction.

For a few examples in medicine: Case Western Reserve is using HoloLens for teaching anatomy, Weill Cornell to visualize and interact with genomic data, and MediVis to render medical imaging in 3D.

NASA has even used HoloLens to let its scientists walk around on a virtual surface of Mars.

Developing 3D HoloLens Applications

Developing 3D applications for HoloLens is straightforward, thanks to the popular Unity game engine, which can deploy to HoloLens. The easiest way to get started uses Unity and Visual Studio running on Windows; both tools have free versions, with limits on commercial use. (You can also develop on macOS or Linux, with some qualifications, but it’s more involved.) Microsoft’s Holographic Academy and Unity’s free tutorials are a fast, effective way to come up to speed from zero.

The principal development language is C#, though other .NET languages such as F#, as well as Unity-flavored Javascript, can be used. Microsoft has also released HoloJS, which allows HoloLens apps to be written using Javascript and WebGL.

If you don't have your own HoloLens, Microsoft provides a free emulator you can run on Windows Professional edition.

The potential of this device has barely been touched; it’s hard to imagine all the future holds. For example, Microsoft Research has prototyped Holoportation, a virtual 3D telepresence technology. It’s rarely been so evident that we’re on the ground floor of something really big. It’s already time to start planning for how this kind of technology will impact your business.

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