This week Microsoft had an update for their HoloLens technology which, I think, currently has the best shot at defining one of the major evolutionary pivots for personal computers. Right now, it reminds me a lot of the early days of the PC market. But instead of replacing calculators, typewriters, mainframe computers, and rolodexes this technology is replacing manuals, remote trainers, tablets, and wearable PCs.
What is particularly fascinating given how slow PCs came into hospitals, is that the HoloLens was just certified for medical procedures. This may help address my fear of hospitals by preventing problems like that poor woman that recently went in for back surgery and came out with one less Kidney (surprisingly she wasn’t particularly thankful).
But much like the PC evolved into a far more comprehensive tool, I expect HoloLens (and augmented reality (AR) in general) to evolve as well—not only in hardware (I’m really looking forward to seeing HoloLens 2 next year) but in how and where it is used. You see, I can foresee a time when we might put this thing on in the morning and not take it off until right before we go to sleep (if then).
Let me explain.
A Real-Life Genie
A few weeks back I was briefed by a startup (Spatial) that is again attempting to solve the video conferencing problem of making remote people feel like they are in the room and people in the room feel like the remote person is present. They use AR goggles, and in their demos seemed to favor HoloLens, to make the solution work. Both the local and remote participants wear the glasses, and both see all of the people in the meeting as photorealistic avatars in the room with them. The reason for avatars rather than filmed and converted real images is to both get rid of the goggles in the images and to reduce the networking overhead. But as network and processing capacity increase and glasses shrink in size and become more stylish these avatars will increasing be the remote person (though, I expect, with the ability to dynamically change appearance at will).
It is interesting to note that the avatars have no legs and look a lot like the Genie in the old Donald O’Connor “The Wonders of Aladdin” movie (you can see what I’m talking about at the end of this clip). But, I think, the potential is far more magical because while the current technology creates what looks like translucent ghosts, future versions will increasingly do a better job of occluding the background and better-integrating the virtual images with the real world. Granted this could have a huge impact on Halloween (can you imagine showing up as the realistic and animated image of anything from a Terminator to My Little Pony, ok that last will never be me).
But this has the potential to create an almost magical experience by effectively changing anything we see into anything we want. We are at least a decade out from that but, I think, we’ll see some interesting implementations before then.
There have been a lot of efforts to make telepresence work with in room cameras, remote operated robots, and even little rolling tablet platforms that can be remote controlled. But the combination of cameras on the headset and the ability to render not only allows the remote viewer to see what the headset user is seeing but appear to be in the area with them. Far stronger than a disembodied voice this could provide far stronger emotional help when someone needs it.
For instance, let’s say there is a fire and you need to get people out of a building, just a voice or even a map wouldn’t be as effective as following someone you trusted on a safe path. Or, suppose you came up on a car accident or a heart attack victim, having someone you can see walk you through the needed procedures to save a life is vastly more powerful than just sending a disembodied voice. It would feel, even if they were translucent, like you weren’t really alone. This could also provide the needed hope to help someone survive a critical injury long before trained medical personnel could arrive.
Now let’s take the avatar concept that Spatial showcased but rather than having a human behind it have an AI (artificial intelligence). Now let’s say there is a meeting you want to attend but have a conflict, or it is a required meeting that you really don’t want to go to, or you just want to take some well-deserved time off. The AI then pretends it is you, records and summarizes the meeting, and then provides you with the summary. Kind of like how a lot of folks got through college.
Now the AI could be trained by simply recording and learning from your own attendance at meetings becoming an ever more credible proxy for you over time. Once it is ready, you suddenly have free time as that AI-driven avatar can now step in. You know, it strikes me that you don’t really need HoloLens for this, on a voice only conference call an AI could likely substitute for you now. (And that intelligent note-taking thing could come in handy even if you were on the call).
Wrapping Up: On The Edge Of Glory
The Lady Gaga song “On The Edge Of Glory” comes to mind because I think AR—particularly self-contained head mounted AR like HoloLens and Magic Leap—represent the future of not only computing but of communications. These things will be connected, voice driven, and they’ll not only help us work smarter and faster, but supplement our skills by giving us better access to the skills and knowledge of others. I think they have the potential to both further integrate our lives with technology and free us up by eliminating unnecessary travel and our need to attend meetings.
In the future you may not be able to tell if the virtual person in the room with you is real or an AI, and I expect, we won’t really care. This has broad implications for how we’ll live our lives and how we’ll connect as a race. We are on the edge of something, I hope it is glory, as the alternatives are a tad scary.