Apple and Microsoft are battle-tested industry titans that have impacted history by crystalizing into two binary archetypes that have orbited each other with chaotic perpetuity: the rebellious and creative hardware producer, and the cerebral and calculating software maker. Constantly improving by competing with each other like the titanic athletic rivals Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, they leave us a world temporarily changed by their endeavors.
The dominance of these two titans of the information age has been alternately challenged and helped by the “keymaster” and “gatekeeper” of the evolving human Internet experience in Google and Facebook. As we stand on the precipice of a new age characterized more dominantly by augmentative technologies, Google and Facebook have thrown down the gauntlet in “mixed reality”—a term that allows for a general conflation of “virtual reality” with “augmented reality.”
Google, with its investments in the much-hyped mixed-reality company Magic Leap, and projects like Glass, Cardboard and Daydream, has laid out a vision where immersive computing is fully democratized and as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Facebook pulled the lever and opened the floodgates for virtual reality to finally break into mainstream acceptance by investing $2 billion in Oculus Rift, which ran a successful crowdfunding campaign led by Founder and CEO Palmer Luckey.
But this week, Apple and Microsoft are making headlines for moves that will impact a race that is already in progress to create a new and dominant mixed-reality computing platform.
Tim Cook finally publicly spoke about Apple’s heavy investments in mixed reality. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said, “I think AR [augmented reality] is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology. So, yes, it’s something we’re doing a lot of things on behind that curtain that we talked about.”
This isn’t the only thing that underscores Apple’s interest in developing an augmented reality headset. Back in 2013, Apple acquired Israeli-based fabless semiconductor PrimeSense, which is best known for engineering the chip and hardware design licensed by Microsoft for use in the popular motion-detecting Kinect for Xbox 360.
The Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset is making headlines for many interesting reasons in different sectors. For instance, NASA is using a HoloLens to design and visualize a Mars rover, Scope AR and Los Angeles-based drywall installation company Martin Bros used a HoloLens to see a 3D model overlaid on reality in order to construct the shell of a bathroom wall, and the Israeli Army is testing two virtual reality headsets in the field for training and to improve battle strategies. Plus, you can play Pokemon Go and Mario Bros on it.
But this is also Microsoft, so, of course, it has just released an enterprise version of the Microsoft HoloLens, and it’s called Commercial Suite. The developer kit was launched last October, though there is an emulator for the desktop that doesn’t require you to fork over $3,000 for the privilege.
Now if you don’t buy the narrative that companies that have invested in mixed reality like Microsoft would like you to, namely, that the 2D display screens we use every day on our mobile devices and workstations are going to evolve into an immersive hardware platform like an augmented reality, virtual reality or mixed-reality headset, then you might be skeptical about the idea that the evolution of our main human-computer interface from our current 2D display-based experience is going to rapidly shift to some augmented reality headset like the HoloLens in the near future.
Nevertheless, included in the Commercial Suite are features that really just enable the HoloLens to fit into the kind of manageable workflow that is expected of all Microsoft enterprise products. You or someone from IT can manage your HoloLens devices at the same time with mobile device management (MDM) software like Microsoft Intune. From Intune, as with other Microsoft devices, your company can customize settings and security configurations. The same type of BitLocker encryption for data used on other Microsoft devices can be enabled for security as well.
An interesting potential route that a team of corporate developers could take with the presence of multiple HoloLens headsets would be to use Windows Store for Business and offer certain clients an exclusive and secure exchange of their company’s original apps developed for HoloLens. For instance, maybe you and a small internal team developed an interesting construction application using a 3D model to check on-site operations against a model to detect imperfections that occurred earlier in the building process. Maybe you’ve developed a medical training application for emergencies aboard the ISS. Basically, Microsoft is hoping you develop some killer apps to populate its gamble on HoloLens.
It’s an interesting way for Microsoft to try and find apps that could be scalable hits with other applications, especially if a developer hits on a novel consumer application. Microsoft will continue to develop the HoloLens in ways that will surely incorporate CAD modeling in different industrial sectors, like AEC and manufacturing.
Though the move to the enterprise is a clear signal that the Microsoft HoloLens is not a “ready-for-prime-time player” like the smartphone, the best use cases of custom industrial and enterprise applications for the HoloLens will surely be cropping up over the next 18 months.
Just recently, an article was published in MIT Technology Review about a commercial construction firm based in Rhode Island that used its HoloLens to check its Revit 3D model of a $70,000,000 job to build a school at the actual construction site. A senior manager from Gilbane Building Company, John Myers, detected an error in the length of the steel frames that his company had designed to fit the building’s walls.
The precognition of this event will save Meyers and Gilbane about $5,000. The in situ use gave Myers the opportunity to contact the supplier and have him shorten cuts of the frames rather than make adjustments to tracks that were already set up and in place.
With news revealed this week of Intel jumping into the augmented reality game with a headset called Project Alloy, the excitement and interest in mixed reality—or whatever term you want to use to describe augmented reality and virtual reality—is certainly high, but it’s hard to know at this point how easy it will be for developers to create apps for augmented reality devices like the HoloLens that move beyond games and explore industrial and engineering applications.
An interesting takeaway from all of these developments is that when it comes to construction applications, people are using the HoloLens to make apps that you can take into the field. The main problem with this, besides possible vertigo, is that the HoloLens is not a certified hard hat. ANSI certified Smart Helmet from DAQRI is both a programmable augmented reality device and a protective helmet.
If there’s a race for a powerful industrial application in augmented reality, I would say DAQRI’s winning. For now, anyway.