Last week I walked on Mars. Well, I walked on a pretty good, visually realistic version of Mars, using a fancy new technology called HoloLens, Microsoft’s big play into what it is calling mixed reality.
This emerging technology is considered more than just augmented reality (AR), which overlays images or diagrams over our current view of the world, but not quite the immersive virtual reality (VR).
The HoloLens display I saw at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle was a demonstration of what might be considered a tourism video for Mars, narrated by a life-sized figure of Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong.
The various Mars Rovers have recorded amazing footage and the Destination Mars exhibit uses this to great effect to show what it’s like to be on the red planet. Look down and you can see the red earth, including cracks in the surface that scientists say were probably formed by water evaporating. You can look into the distance and see the mountains and hills, or watch the Curiosity rover drill into the rock to analyse samples.
It’s just the beginning of what is possible with such headsets. One of the other applications is helping the scientists at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory navigate the surface of Mars – by displaying the surface in 3D so they can see the bumps in the surface and make sure they don’t crash into anything or get stuck.
Arguably the most interesting way devices like HoloLens can help is teaching medical students what the human body looks like in 3D. Until now, anatomy has been studied in two dimensions as flat images in a book or website. But depicting them in the visual world of HoloLens is not only much more informative but quite ground-breaking, as has been down with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I really think this could impact almost everything that we teach people,” said Dr Mark Griswold, professor of radiology at CWRU. “With HoloLens you can see the muscles on top of the skeleton all at the same time. You can bring them in and out and exactly understand where things sit.”
Personally I’d like my doctor to visualise these things much better.
I’ve always thought one of the best application for AR goggles is for technicians doing maintenance of complicated machinery such as air conditioners or lifts – where someone can reference an overlay of the device they are fixing that shows what parts fit where and how to repair or upgrade them.
A good elevator technician would need to know every machine their company sells, or schlep a large, heavy manual with them if they don’t. But with something like a HoloLens, they could use an intelligent overlay to help them. The possibilities for these skilled technicians being augmented by a smart system are endless.
The most impressive thing about HoloLens – for a geek – is that it is a fully functioning Windows 10 computer – in what is essentially an oversized set of snow goggles with a band that fastens around your neck. That’s a computer that’s powerful enough to display mixed reality – other VR systems require a powerful, high-end computer – into a device that’s light and comfortable to wear on your head. Imagine what the next iteration will be able to do.
As Tim O’Brien, general manager for global communications at Microsoft told me, “HoloLens is pretty revolutionary”. Indeed it is.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail