Microsoft's HoloLens headset starts shipping to developers today with a price tag of $3,000, but early versions of the device are already being used by a handful of corporations around the globe. We've seen some neat uses of the augmented reality technology from these third parties in the past — for instance, a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab partnership that brings Mars to life and a slick-looking human anatomy demo with Case Western Reserve University.
Microsoft itself has created even more exciting applications, like a HoloLens version of Minecraft that transforms a room into a living, breathing pixel world you can interact with using your fingers. But beyond these demos shown off onstage at Microsoft's conferences, the HoloLens commercial partner list — which shows how the device is being both used in the workplace and in retail locations — is a snooze-worthy collection of corporate mundanities.
From home improvement to construction to car dealership showrooms, none of the current HoloLens applications are all that exciting. Think more dad tech than Star Trek. Microsoft's early partner list also makes a strong argument for how AR will be used to sell us products and perform gimmicky office work far faster than it will reshape the landscape of computing. The crazy and unimaginable applications are coming in the future, to be sure. But right now, you just have to look at this slide to get a sense of where the HoloLens stands:
Microsoft carries some of the blame. The company took the wraps off a half-finished HoloLens in January 2015 with the intention of exciting developers and the public earlier rather than later. But the technology is still years away from being common in the workplace, let alone a consumer's living room. And HoloLens creator Alex Kipman hasn't exactly shied away from hyperbole in communicating this inevitable roadmap either.
It's a bit like seeing the first Microsoft Tablet PC devices from 15 or so years ago and imagining how they might some day resemble the Surface Pro 4. The HoloLens is an incredible and fascinating device that may, some day, change how we interact with the world. For now, however, we have to settle for the few not-so-exciting categories it can actually be used for.
Nothing screams "squandering the potential of groundbreaking technology" quite like corporate training exercises. Yet that's exactly how the HoloLens is being used by early Microsoft partners like Japan Airlines. It's easy to see how the device could be used as a "mixed reality" aerospace-related training program for pilots.
AR training simulations are old news
That's a reasonable and wholly expected use case for AR headsets, especially considering far more costly military-grade technology has provided similar simulations for years now. Still, an AR training video doesn't have far-reaching potential beyond making it cheaper and easier to simulate a cockpit. Because the HoloLens can be used wirelessly and may perform many of the same functions of a big simulation rig four or five times the cost, it may be an attractive option for contractors and airliners. The usefulness would seem to end there.
Swedish aerospace and defense company Saab has more ambitious plans for HoloLens training programs. "We see Hololens is a perfect device to support training that would be undertaken in otherwise very hazardous environments such as global de-mining operations conducted by non-government and government organizations," said Inger Lawes, Saab's head of training and simulation. "Further, we plan to build applications that will be designed to support distance learning in countries such as Australia where schoolchildren in remote parts the country are taught via web delivered programs."
Automakers like Volkswagen and Volvo are teaming up with Microsoft to show how the HoloLens can be used in lieu of traditional CAD software for seeing design schematics in life-size 3D. It's hard to believe a full-time designer would use the HoloLens to replace well-established desktop software applications in the near term. So the more immediate way a car company can make use of AR is to sell us customization options for a new ride.
AR will be used to hawk products
"The HoloLens can allow our customers to see features, colors, options. Rather than working on the computer seeing things, you can be part of the experience," says Nina Larsen, Volvo's director of retail marketing, in a HoloLens promotional video. Being able to customize a car and see how it looks in real time is a big feature of both augmented and virtual reality systems.
At the same time, it's difficult to get excited about yet another way for companies to try and sell us stuff by using cutting-edge technology in a somewhat perverse way. Just as VR will be inundated with advertising and shameless brand activations, AR too will likely be a lucrative goldmine for companies who want to use it to hawk products and services. Because there's no better way to sell something than to wrap it in the shiny bow of new technology.
Construction and home improvement
Starting this month, Microsoft is bringing the HoloLens to select Lowe's stores in the Seattle area to let consumers view items like cabinets and appliances in life-size realism within an empty kitchen space. The goal is to let you virtually reconstruct a set of products with different customizations as if they were floating right in front of you.
"Imagine a view of your custom kitchen, within your existing kitchen space or reviewing options for a brand new dining room table and chairs without ever leaving home," wrote HoloLens general manager Scott Erickson in a blog post. Like a Vovlo AR showroom, this is just another way to help sell products. However, being able to redesign your kitchen with holograms does provide some obvious consumer benefits.
A HoloLens scale model seems like a fun office gimmick at best
Meanwhile, construction company Sellen and architecture software firm Trimble have struck partnerships with Microsoft in the last year to bring the HoloLens into building construction and modeling. Like training simulations, seeing architectural models in 3D feels like a no-brainer for AR, if only as an interesting way to conceptualize a blueprint or scale model in a more immersive fashion. Yet while I'm no architect, a HoloLens demo like this seems best used as a fun office gimmick (or a way to assuage the anger of Ben Stiller's character in Zoolander).
While these applications are interesting, as are the car customization and training programs, they're certainly not walking the surface of Mars or playing Minecraft. It may be overly optimistic and demanding to assume the HoloLens can transform the workplace as fast and immediately as it can bring a sandbox video game to life. So that means settling for now with AR that spices up the mundane more than it brings holograms to life.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Saab's development work with the HoloLens. The company is not building a "mixed reality" training application for military and civilian pilots. Rather, the company is focusing on training programs for remote education, as well as operating in hazardous environments.