It’s been roughly two years since Microsoft unveiled its augmented/mixed reality (AR/MR) HoloLens headset and about one year since the first publicly available dev kits went on sale. But ever since launching this impressive piece of tech, Microsoft has instead seemed content with letting Virtual Reality (VR) take the limelight. Take its recent Creators Update presentation in October as an example. Microsoft revealed tons of upcoming 3D functionality to benefit both VR and AR, but the headlines came when the company announced hardware OEMs like HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Acer would be making VR headsets of their own with Microsoft software powering the experience.
Throughout HoloLens’ short existence, Microsoft has repeatedly emphasized how this product, still a first-generation device, was simply not yet consumer-ready. In these first two years of HoloLens public awareness, Microsoft would only focus on building partnerships and use cases that showcased the business and enterprise applications for this new augmented/mixed reality platform.
The terms AR and MR are often applied interchangeably, but MR is used most often by Microsoft when describing the HoloLens technology. No matter what you want to call it, this approach has several practical advantages compared to VR. Not only is it much less likely to trigger the type of discomfort associated with so-called “simulator sickness,” but the ability to overlay holographic elements onto real-world environments makes the HoloLens particularly suited to training and education applications, for example.
Most significant for business and enterprise situations, however, is the fact that—unlike with VR—the user is not shut away from their surroundings with AR/MR. Whether or not you happen to be sharing a physical space, MR allows you to see, listen, and talk to others while everyone involved sees the same holograms simultaneously. It’s this precise ability to create a shared reality mixing all those elements that potentially makes the HoloLens such a powerful collaboration and visualization tool.
While Microsoft had units in the hands of select partners since announcing, the first HoloLens Development Edition headsets only shipped in March 2016. Talking with a trio of companies who’ve integrated the AR/MR tool into their workflow since, the message is clear. HoloLens and its competitors aren’t the future; this technology is very much making positive change in the present.
When Microsoft unveiled the idea of the HoloLens, construction was one of the first applications being brought up. “For example, walking around a building that’s still under construction and seeing where all the walls and doors will be, how big the furniture is, and being able to see what it’ll look like and even change it on the fly isn’t possible with other technology;”’ Peter Bright wrote when reviewing the device. “It is with HoloLens. The view may be a little more restricted than the dream device, but the alternative here is not having that ability at all.”
Verticals such as the construction industry make for interesting case studies because these sectors are often reluctant to embrace digital transformation, yet they stand to gain the most in terms of potential efficiency saving when overhauling legacy processes. That fact was not lost on AECOM, an American multinational engineering firm. The company wanted to find a partner to develop a HoloLens application specifically for the engineering and construction sector, and last year they found the right fit. AECOM partnered with Trimble, a company that specializes in advanced location-based technology. Trimble launched its mixed-reality pilot program in 2015, and the company subsequently released SketchUp Viewer—the first commercially available enterprise-level product for the HoloLens.
Trimble’s solution allowed AECOM to feed 3D engineering models into the HoloLens world, giving AECOM employees greater clarity in the design review process than had previously been possible with traditional 2D drawings or even 3D on-screen models. Since launching this pilot scheme, AECOM has since applied these new models to a number of real-world projects including the Serpentine Galleries’ annual architecture programme in London.
“In 2016, the Serpentine Galleries expanded their architecture program to include four Summer Houses with complex, unconventional structures, so using HoloLens really helped with visualization and design reviews,” explains Chris Thorn, Principal Technology and Process Consultant at AECOM. “With extremely tight program constraints, the mixed-reality headsets helped speed up the engineering design process. The tightly curved steel and timber structure of Barkow Leibinger’s Summer House, for example, was so intricate that it would have taken a long time to methodically check the model without HoloLens technology.”
Thorn said the technology has been so helpful, even those architects previously uncomfortable with digital tools have picked up AECOM’s HoloLens solutions and worked without concern. “In one demo session, a not so tech-savvy engineer put on a headset and instantly noticed a problem with the structural model he was looking at,” he recalled. “The ability to zoom in for a 1:1 view to simulate what it is like to move through a structural framework has been immensely beneficial.”
But beyond the design-specific benefits, the biggest impact from Trimble’s implementation of HoloLens may be how mixed reality has improved AECOM’s communication and accelerated design cycles. Architect Greg Lynn used HoloLens to design the renovation of the Packard Plant in Detroit, a project that was selected to represent the US in the Venice Architecture Biennale. “Greg reported that by using mixed reality during the design stage he could make decisions quickly, shorten design cycles, and improve communication with stakeholders,” says Aviad Almagor, Director of Mixed Reality Programs at Trimble. “I had the privilege to join Greg at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where visitors were able to experience his design using Microsoft HoloLens. It was clear that the shift from communicating information to communicating experiences enabled guests to be more involved and understand the suggested design.”
From designing towers to designing trucks
Like AECOM, the ability to visualize and experiment with designs collaboratively in real time was also what sold truck manufacturers Paccar on the HoloLens. When Vancouver-based Finger Food Studios first pitched Paccar on the company’s holographic visualization tool, Finger Food expected executives and engineers would go away and discuss it before making a decision. Instead, the Paccar team started enthusiastically talking amongst themselves halfway through the presentation. And three hours later—recalls Finger Food Creative Director Chris Waind—they were all sporting bright red marks across their foreheads from wearing the headsets for so long. No one in the room seemed to notice a little headset imprint, however, they were too busy discussing how to improve the truck design projected in front of them.
“In truck design, no decision can be made unless it’s to scale, so every change, every improvement has to be modelled in clay,” Waind told. “I’m not kidding you, these trucks are made out of dirt, full size, 100 percent, and that takes about six months for every single one.” Even for someone with a lot of visual training like Waind, he’s constantly surprised how different things can look in full scale as opposed to half-scale, hence the cumbersome clay modelling process most of the truck design industry still relies on.
The solution that Finger Food offered Paccar was therefore to build a full-scale truck hologram—which is currently the largest truck hologram in the world. Housed in a 25,000 square foot warehouse on the outskirts of Vancouver, Finger Food’s Holodeck (named for the obvious Star Trek reference, of course) is rather impressive, especially considering it came together only a few months ago. Finger Food CEO Ryan Peterson says this is a reflection of how much business in MR is booming. In fact, the company is looking to double in size over the next year or so, much of it due to the heightened interest in the technology among Fortune 500 companies. Perhaps that’s not surprising given examples such as Paccar’s. The truck design company used to need months to model a project, now the process can take hours. “It’s the kind of thing that makes it possible to literally leapfrog your competition,” says Peterson.
The beauty of working with large-scale industrial processes is that even small improvements can have a dramatic effect on the bottom line, so the large possible impact of HoloLens adds up quickly according to Waind. “We save about $16,000 every time we catch a truck that isn’t fitted with the correct bolts inside it, for example, because that’s not only a truck you can’t sell, but you have to stop the entire production line, and you lose those five or ten minutes times about 175 people,” he said. “Each mistake really adds up because they’re compounded on such a phenomenal scale; catching them saves a lot of money. So even if the initial investment in the technology can seem high, it’s offset against those savings and definitely starts to look like a much more viable proposition.”
Those gaps translate into “low-hanging fruit” from an ROI perspective, because it enables efficiencies that simply weren’t possible before. Waind compares it to the kind of shift we’ve previously seen with email adoption, Internet shopping, or the onset of large databases. Peterson likens it to a new industrial revolution, and he believes its implications are nothing short of dramatic. “Where it comes to this stuff, seeing is believing,” he says. “Once you show people what we’re doing, I get e-mails from them weeks afterwards going ‘I’m still thinking about this,’ and they come up with all sorts of ideas about how it will change their own business. You just can’t unsee this stuff.”