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Bull Session

Microsoft HoloLens and the UX of Augmented Reality

January 29, 2015          

Episode Summary

There’s been much ado this week about the debut of the Microsoft HoloLens and the renewed promise of augmented reality. The vision of a digitally enhanced world, with entertainment, gaming, and work options integrated spatially into our day-to-day existence is powerful stuff. But the disappointing adoption of the first major foray into the space, with Google Glass, has left us skeptical. Will augmented reality via glass or lens be relegated to specialist applications, like health and manufacturing? Or will consumers flock to the product that gets the user experience right? In this episode of The Digital Life, we examine the UX of augmented reality and discuss the promise and potential perils of the Microsoft HoloLens.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 87 of the Digital Life. A show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. How’s the major blizzard going there in Boston?

Jon:
If you can believe it, we had two feet of snow on the driveway and drifts that were up to three feet around the house. I must say that I got to know my snow blower quite well over the past day or two. Honestly, I feel like we almost got all of the snow for the season so far in one dump, which is an interesting way to get it.

Dirk:
That’s been pretty mild this winter but you guys are getting hammered now. Let’s go to the Digital though. The snow doesn’t have much to do with the world of design and technology. What do you want to talk about this week?

Jon:
Some pretty exciting product announcements from Microsoft around their new HoloLens which is I’m sure you know this augmented reality system that allows people to place holographic images of all kinds of different kinds of computing from CAD software to Minecraft to your typical e-mail and entertainment options like television. Microsoft pushing into this area is really big deal because we’ve seen big companies try and fail before, most recently the Google Glass. As another type of competitor, Facebook offering in the Oculus Rift is another aspect of this virtual and augmented realities user experience. I think today, let’s dig in a little bit into the user experience of both virtual and augmented realities. What’s your initial take on this burgeoning computing space?

Dirk:
This is a little strong perhaps: I think it’s much ado about nothing. Google Glass was a big sensation, more recently Oculus Rift. Now Microsoft has their foray and it’s just not there. The technology is still so far away from even approaching the potential that they promise but there’s a reason why Google Glass didn’t take off for the heavens. There’s a reason why Oculus Rift to its credit is generally gaining focus, yet still having real issues around the technology and how it manifests in the real world with people. They’re cool.

I watched the Microsoft video and it’s neat but it’s also, if you look at with a critical eye, it’s super problematic. There’s a lot of things they show that were just nuttybuns that are just … The total wrong use cases for using something like that.

Jon:
Yeah, if you watched the demo video for the HoloLens, there’s, for lack of a better term, a lot of and smoke and mirrors going on. Everything looks like there’s immaculate integration into your day-to-day life but of course they showed the CAD software and the gestures are immediately recognized and affecting this 3D CAD object. You just know that the experience of manipulating CAD is so intricate to begin with, having some experience designing CAD software ourselves.

The gestural interactions needed to achieve that kind of interaction with CAD software is going to be very tricky to pull off. While it looks great in the HoloLens initial promo marketing video, I think there’s going to be a drop-off when it comes to the actual user experience. That’s just my guess though.

Dirk:
No, you’re absolutely right. When you’re dealing with CAD, you’re talking about pixel perfection. You really want fine details and free hand gesturing isn’t going to get you there or even close to there. You’re still going to want a tool that is more micro, that is more able to impact things at a scale that’s impossible with your hands and with looking at some projected thing that’s n feet away from you.

It’s just really silly, yeah, and it falls into a typical error that technology companies have ever strive to make. They want to position their technology as just changing the whole world. “Oh my God, you’re going to put this thing on and go through your life and it’s going to change how you work, how you interact, how you travel, how you eat.” It doesn’t make sense.

It’s a tool and it’s a tool that when they get it right, it can do some really cool thing so there is potential in different ways for this kind of technology but along with being a long way away, it just isn’t everything. There’s something that is going to be awesome for. It really enhanced our experience, but there’s a lot of other things where it’s totally inappropriate and in the fanatic push to get the marketing out there and beat the drum, that’s ignored and vision is put forward that it’s silly.

Jon:
I tend to agree. What I really like about this move to push computing beyond the flat screens that we’re so used to … What I like about it is adding some of the virtual elements to the physical reality. I mean you can do that in many ways, the HoloLens and the Google Glass are just two examples of how you can do that. You can add virtual properties to objects using sensors for example as well, but what I like about the core idea there is that the physical objects in our lives will have virtual properties as well and will provide that connectedness that we need when it comes to certain working models collaboration, things like that, or even things we haven’t necessarily thought of yet.

The problem of course always comes down to how we’re going beyond the screen and in this case, as you pointed out, probably a few years away from realizing these kinds of screen overlays that will make virtual reality bind satisfactorily to our physical reality.

Dirk:
Yeah. There’s also the question of use cases around providing virtual information. As I look around my environment that I’m in, it’s my office and it’s stuff that I own and I’m familiar with, I’m not seeing a single thing that I would want metadata put within my view range to add contacts.

I don’t need to know the maker of the mug on my desk, for example. When you’re out in the physical world and trying to make decisions on … There’s a lot of use cases there, who they interact with, who might be offering a service that you’re looking for, or what have you. Then it becomes pregnant with possibilities, but the examples in this video for the most part, if not totally, someone in their home and or office and you just don’t need that kind of context there. There is potential. There some interesting stuff.

Another real concern is they’re still nowhere near solving for letting people use this kind of technology without getting headaches, without hurting themselves. I mean across the board, 3D televisions, Google Glass, Oculus Rift. You deal with those things for any period of time or if it’s just not quite in the right way after sitting at the wrong angle on the 3D TV or what not. You’re going to have a headache. It’s hurting your eyes. It’s hurting your brain. They’ve got a long, long, long way to go.

Jon:
Yeah, I think part of the research around why those headaches are caused is because the 3D technologies are not … They don’t mimic reality. They’re artificial in some way and so your eye is constantly making adjustments to try to keep up with what it knows to be a fake virtual environment. Like you said, you got these ghastly headaches, which nobody wants.

An additional point about these goggles and glasses is, I know some of them look like they’ve been through the industrial design process but they are also bulbous and ugly in a lot of ways. The Oculus Rift, we have one in the studio, one of our developers was playing with it and I’m like, it looked like an S&M object, honestly. It looks like something that was supposed to deprive you of your …

Dirk:
Senses

Jon:
Exactly. I’m like, “What is going on?” He’s like, “It’s Oculus Rift. We have this developer version of it.” and I’m like, “Oh, geez, what does that thing do?” It just seemed peculiar and then Google Glass of course, we’ve all seen people walking around events with those and just the social aspects of that, that looks less obtrusive than your Oculus Rift, but still you’ve got your whole meme around the glassholes. Part of that is the social intrusion and part of that was just, you’re wearing this camera on your head and you look like a glasshole. These are problems that, in addition to the virtual aspects, integrating this with your day-to-day experience from an industrial design perspective or from a clothing perspective or however you want to frame that. That’s going to be an important nut to crack as well.

Dirk:
Yeah, for sure. Over time, they will crack the form factor problem. They will crack the headache and strain on our eyes and brain problem. The challenge is, right now, these companies are bringing these products out and telling them like they’re here. Like they’re, “Oh my God, this is so big and important.” It’s so far away in reality.

If these were things that were brand new or original ideas that could at least be sold as a thought experiment as opposed to a prototype and a product, I would respect that because we need to see what … It might not be ready yet for what is coming down the road but the fact is, that the technology that they’re showing here is stuff that we saw in Minority Report 15 years ago, a Hollywood movie that the technology for which was dreamed up and derivated from some of the top scientists and technologists who were tasked with looking in the future and seeing what computing would look like.

This is all done before. There’s nothing with Oculus Rift or Microsoft or any of these right now today that are showing us something that we haven’t seen before in a technology conceptual manner. There’s really no bang on that side. Then it has to be about being a real product and it simply isn’t. It’s years, potentially many, away from being a product and even when it is, it’s more likely to be a niche tool for certain use cases than this thing that’s strapped on your head or however it’s done when they finally get there all day for long period of time in a lot of different contexts. One thing is just, I don’t know. It’s masturbatory at best.

Jon:
The Google Glass, I think to accentuate your point about the niche uses. Google Glass had some interesting use cases around health for instance, for surgeons perhaps wanting to see medical records or x-rays while they’re in surgery and can’t necessarily deal with a computer because their hands are busy.

The promise of these niche applications is quite good and ultimately it will be interesting to see how that split happens whether there are gaming and health and maybe some other entertainment options available for these, but the general use case. This is not going to be your next iPhone and I think some of these large tech companies get confused when they’re looking to put together that next piece of hardware. I think everybody in the back of their head wants to have that iPhone or iPad breakout, new market product. I think that’s where some of these marketing hype might be coming from.

Dirk:
Yeah, I’m nodding my head to all of that.

Jon:
Listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the Digitalife.com. That’s just one L in the Digitalife and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, or e-mail me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 87 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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