How to drive business with Microsoft HoloLens

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In case you haven’t heard, the invite-only barrier for purchasing a HoloLens was recently lifted when Microsoft announced that all developers and business customers in the US and Canada can now purchase up to five devices without application. This, of course, means that more devices will be in customer and developer hands sooner. So, what exactly does that mean for you and your business? Should you get in early? Is it worth the investment to explore holographic experiences? Let’s find out by taking a deeper look at the HoloLens itself and some of the tools you can use to get started.    .  

Microsoft HoloLens: A brief overview

One of the first things to consider with HoloLens is the shift from traditional computing to other digital realities. Traditional computing requires a 2D display surface that’s interactive; this interaction happens via mouse, keyboard, touch or other handheld input devices. The same can be said for virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift, where handheld controllers interact with the virtual world you’re experiencing.

The HoloLens is dramatically different. The main input devices are your eyes, combined with either voice or a gesture (think of the gesture as the mouse-click in traditional computing). Wearing a HoloLens for the first time is mind-blowing and you quickly realize that there are no other devices that offer a similar experience – or even one in the same category. Sure, we now have many virtual reality (VR) devices, but where these completely replace reality, HoloLens enhances the actual physical world. By overlaying the users’ world with holographic data, you can create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. However, this is where things get challenging.

HoloLens for business

As a business owner or decision maker, you have to understand both the challenges and processes in creating holographic experiences. The biggest challenge for businesses is to create an experience that is unique to HoloLens. For example, if you’re overlaying data dashboards and only showing holograms that aren’t interacting with the real world (like a 2D web browser floating in 3D space), you aren’t creating a true HoloLens experience. Because it’s such an expensive device, creating a purely augmented or virtual reality experience for the HoloLens is just false economy.

It’s essential to recognize the potential of the device by having holograms interacting with whatever physical space you're in. If you have characters, they should use your furniture; if you have balls, they should roll off surfaces; if you have robot spiders, they should come out of your walls. Bottom line: It shouldn’t matter what physical space you’re in; the holographic experience will work anywhere.

Another thing to avoid is creating just another “wow” app. You really want your project to have a lifespan beyond “cool, holograms!” In order to take full advantage of the platform, create projects that have scope and will give a return on your investment and improve your customers’ experience. HoloLens has the potential to be so much more than an attention-grabber; when used to its fullest, it can push existing markets and create new ones.

Building HoloLens experiences

Even if you don’t yet have access to a HoloLens, you can still work on building a HoloLens experience. Microsoft has some great development tools including integration with Unity 3D for creating your 3D environments, Visual Studio Integration, HoloLens Emulator and a HoloLens Device Portal to monitor stats and view the 3D space you’re in. And you have no excuses for not testing these out, because they’re all free. Let’s take a quick look at how each of these works. 

Unity 3D for HoloLens: Unity 3D is a popular choice for creating both 3D and 2D experiences. It provides a large number of plugins and supports many platforms including HoloLens. Initially, Unity can be daunting; it has an intimidating interface and the learning curve can be steep. The best advice here is to ignore all the parts you don’t need and focus on the main areas. 

Unity 3D for HoloLens

The scene in Unity is the space where your holograms will exist and it’s where you’ll attach behaviors to 3D elements. The behaviors are in the form of C# scripts and have a standard format for their simplest implementation. 

using UnityEngine;

public class TestScript : MonoBehaviour {

	// Use this for initialization
	void Start () {
	
	}
	
	// Update is called once per frame
	void Update () {
	
	}
} 

There’s always a Start() function, which initializes any objects you might need to reference such as handling gazes and gestures. There’s always an Update() function, which is called once per frame, or 60 times per second. This function handles interactions with objects, updates their appearance, raises events and much more. Everything you need to do as a result of your 3D scene-changing is handled in the Update() function.

Note: You can edit the scripts in the included Mono editor, but it’s highly recommended that you use Visual Studio, which comes in the free community edition

Visual Studio Integration: Visual Studio is arguably the most complete and comprehensive Integrated Development Environment (IDE). Loved by Microsoft for decades, it’s the go-to tool for most development on the Microsoft stack. This includes HoloLens development and, apart from Visual Studio, you need to download the Holographic Development Kit (HDK).

Once you have all the Visual Studio tooling installed, you can export the solution from Unity into Visual Studio and work on the project there. Exporting the project from Unity creates a Universal Windows App, meaning the core of your project is portable across all Windows 10 devices. In fact, the Microsoft Office 2016 suite of apps are Universal Windows Apps, and now Outlook 2016 runs on HoloLens as well. 

HoloLens Emulator: To run your HoloLens app while developing and testing it, you can use a physical HoloLens. But, if you don’t have one yet, the HoloLens emulator is a great backup tool. Running as a Hyper-V virtual machine, the emulator is a standalone instance and is as close as you’ll get to the physical device without actually having one.

Microsoft HoloLens Emulator

The emulator can give a realistic view of your HoloLens experience by emulating real locations captured by the spatial mapping of an actual HoloLens device. You can move around in 3D space using mouse and keyboard. All gestures, speech actions and spatial sounds are also fully available. Additionally, you can see the main view through your 3D world, along with a simulation overview. 

HoloLens Simulation Overview

This shows the current state of all the sensors (simulated, of course) used for input to the HoloLens OS (Windows 10). The additional tabs in the windows gives even more control over the environment, including loading additional rooms, as described earlier. As a business owner, this means you can give your developers the necessary tools to create a proof of concept, before you buy some costly devices for the final testing. 

HoloLens Device Portal: In addition to the emulator, you can access a full device portal that provides a great level of detail about the device and how it’s currently operating. It’s the same portal for both the emulator and the physical device, and the same tools are available for both. You can monitor and analyze the performance and trace any frame rate issues, current power consumption, and all the system metrics relevant to the device. 

Microsoft HoloLens Device Portal

The most immediate useful feature of the portal is to show the 3D space that you’re in. As you move your view in the emulator, the portal 3D view will update to reflect your position. This means you can more accurately get a sense for furniture, walls and other physical properties of a potential space.

HoloLens Portal 3D View

Helping your business with HoloLens

If you’re intrigued about getting started with HoloLens development, you need to get the tools we’ve talked about here – and you need to dive right in. The HoloLens presents many opportunities, and getting in early will give you an edge in a market that’s expected to  grow rapidly over the next few years.  

Contributor

Lars Klint

Lars is an author, trainer, Microsoft MVP, community leader, authority on all things Windows Platform and part-time crocodile wrangler. He is heavily involved in the space of HoloLens and mixed reality, as well as a published Pluralsight author, freelance solution architect and writer for numerous publications. He has been a part of the software development community for the past 20 years and co-organizes the DDD Melbourne community conference and developer events with Microsoft. Lars also runs a part-time car restoration business. He has spoken at numerous technical events around the world and is an expert in Australian Outback Internet.

Check Lars' own blog at larsklint.com and follow him on Twitter @larsklint.