REDMOND, WASHINGTON - Tech enthusiasts may be drawn to HoloLens, the head-mounted holographic computer from Microsoft, but company executives say businesses also should consider how it can help improve their bottom line.
The wearable device allows users to interact with holograms using their gaze and simple hand gestures. Virtual interfaces are superimposed onto the immediate environment, combining the real world with a digital one. It's a form of mixed reality that Microsoft executives say offers more than just entertainment value — it can be put to work in business scenarios.
"We're seeing mixed reality broadly as a new kind of dimension, literally, of how we're going to interact with information," said Greg Sullivan, director of communications for the Windows and devices group at Microsoft.
Companies like German elevator maker Thyssenkrupp have begun experimenting with HoloLens. In a promotional video, an elevator repairman dons a HoloLens headset to begin a work order. The computer assesses the repair situation and displays holographic guidance, along with the ability to conference in an associate located remotely.
The associate can interact within the repair technician's virtual workspace, "She can sit in her office in Germany and scale her expertise literally around the world … see what they're seeing, guide them and even ink on their display," Sullivan said.
WATCH: High-tech HoloLens in Action
Cirque de Soleil
Data visualization is another potential use for HoloLens.
"You can walk around the 3-dimensional representation of that data and it gives you powerful new insights, because as humans, we live in a 3-D world and we understand things better … if we interact with them in three dimensions," Sullivan said.
That can be useful for creative industries. At Microsoft's recent "Build" conference for software developers, set designers from Cirque de Soleil demonstrated how holographic versions of their theater sets allowed them to plan ahead. Team members wearing HoloLens could walk around and interact with true-to-scale holograms of their set designs, even inserting virtual avatars of real-life performers.
Architecture and engineering
Other industries that utilize 3-D modeling, like architecture and engineering, potentially can benefit from holographic computing, too. Trimble, a company specializing in GPS technologies, developed an application for HoloLens that allows architects and contractors to manipulate 3-D holographic designs and models in real-life environments, such as construction sites.
"You can have multiple people sharing an experience in mixed reality, look at a digital version of the project … and then make those changes in real time and all see them, and then go ahead and move right into production much, much quicker," said Sullivan. "The efficiencies that are gained are really profound."
Chris Silva, research director at Gartner, agrees. "3-D models in health care, extremely complex design documents … they're a natural fit for something like HoloLens, where stepping into the data really can help get the job done better," Silva said.
But like many new technologies, HoloLens' price tag initially may deter widespread adoption. The device retails for $3,000 for a developer edition and $5,000 for a business edition that comes bundled with enterprise applications.
"The biggest risk is making an investment in this technology and not having a plan for how it gets used," Silva said. "These are devices that are two, maybe even three, times the cost of the average laptop, and much more expensive than a mobile device. They're new, and therefore the organizations aren't always sure how they're going to use them."
Silva recommends that companies take a pilot approach to the technology by introducing it to a single group, picking one process to improve upon and analyzing the subsequent results.
Microsoft's long-time presence on office desktops means HoloLens eventually could transform everyday workspaces.
"When we look at the average worker model, where this type of technology starts literally replacing people's monitors on their desks, somebody like Microsoft is well positioned to capture that," Silva said. "They can plug HoloLens into the way they're doing business today."
Overall, Silva is excited for future developments in the mixed reality space.
"This is definitely the next frontier of mobile devices … this could be the next thing that replaces the desktop PC, the iPad, the smartphone in your pocket."