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Idealog goes to Microsoft's HoloLens Academy

As part of my experience of getting fully immersed in nerd culture, I, along with other media, (aka people at a similar level of incompetence with advanced technology) was invited for a session at Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Academy in Seattle, Washington. This is what went down.

The Academy is where people can get hands-on with code through tutorials and lessons to learn how to develop for Microsoft’s mixed reality devices: its much-hyped HoloLens, and its just-released Acer VR Headset. It's also a 'shared environment', where people wearing either type of mixed reality device can come together and even interact with each other. 

Above - the Acer VR headset, below - the HoloLens

A quick recap on all things mixed reality: The HoloLens is an augmented reality device that places virtual objects in the real world that you can interact with, while the Acer VR Headset is totally immersive, taking the user away to a virtual world separate from reality.

But before us media were allowed to get our grubby little mitts on either device, we had to undergo a screening process.

First up, the other journalists and I lined up outside a mysterious, security-guard flanked room, where the distance between our eyes was measured to ensure maximum accuracy when our HoloLens were fitted.

Next, we had to stow away all of our belongings and bags away into lockers before entering the room. I don’t blame Microsoft – times are tough in the media industry, so I wouldn’t trust journalists around my US$3,000 devices, either.

Then, initiation time. We walked past security and into a room that reminded me of one of the bars I used to regularly visit when I was 18: Throbbing music, incredibly stimulating rainbow flashing lights, and lots of people dancing around with a lack of bodily control. No, seriously.

A line of engineers clapped, cheered and danced as we entered, all insisting on high-fiving us on the way in to get us psyched for the experience.

As geeks by trade, they weren’t the most coordinated of sorts, but their enthusiasm made up for it. Despite there being at least 100 computer screens crowding the room, the energy was palpable.

A shy-but-lovely Indian guy announced he’d be my friend and I’s guide for the session and helped us get set up with a PC computer, a VR headset and a HoloLens.

After a bit of jiggling around, I got my HoloLens device on. I couldn’t resist taking a selfie to get a feel for what I look like with this large contraption glued to my face. It felt like I was in Stepbrothers when Brennan is wearing clunky night vision goggles and Dale goes, “You know what's amazing? They're not that noticeable on your face.”

Over the course of the day, I’d learnt Microsoft is extremely keen on integrating this futuristic technology seamlessly into people’s lives. However, subtlety and the HoloLens aren’t friends yet. It’s a slick, wireless device, but it’s rather large.   

Earlier in the day, a live demonstration was held on stage with some of Cirque Du Soleil’s staff to show the HoloLens in action. Its creative director roamed around the stage, inserting virtual props and virtual people onto the stage in front of him.

The demo made it look like the HoloLens’ vision range was close to 360 degrees, but once I had it on, I discovered the field of view is quite limited.

Above, below, and your peripheral angles aren’t covered if you move your head, so objects can get cut off before they’d naturally drop out of sight. Though it’s cool, it’s not as fully immersive as I expected, and shows the tech has a little while to go yet before the lines become fully ‘blurred’.

We’re instructed to look in front of us, only to find a virtual Disney villain is speaking to us. Not really - it’s Alex Kipman, the creator of the HoloLens - but Kipman has a bit of a bad guy vibe about him that’s accentuated when he’s a little hologram figure.


Alex Kipman or Disney villain? You be the judge.

Like his presentation earlier in the day, Kipman is brimming with enthusiasm over his creation. He invites us to test out placing a cartoon tropical island holographic image into the real world, and so we do.

It’s an odd sight to see a bunch of people walking around with headsets, tapping at and interacting with objects that aren’t actually there, but once you’ve also got one on, you get into it.

The virtual projections in the HoloLens also aren’t as transparent as expected – they’re solid objects that can be placed anywhere, as the headset can interpret the world and the various surfaces around you.

For example, it recognises and puts objects on the surface of a table. Not bad – although we’re warned too much tampering with placing objects in weird places can lead to that famous vertigo feeling associated with VR.

Next up, we had a go at building the code behind the same cartoon tropical island using the Unity engine and Visual Studio.

Though it’s complicated tech, the process is basically idiot proof, with us really only needing to tick a few boxes. With the help of our mentor, it’s up and running relatively quickly.

About five of us came together as a group to experience it, with some people wearing the VR headsets and some people wearing the HoloLens. The experience was collaborative, as VR headset wearers were fully immersed in the island as virtual characters that could interact with their surroundings and see each other.

VR wearers could teleport around the island using an Xbox controller and enter a volcano by solving one of three puzzles. The one I was faced with was 'I love pie" and a number keypad. Classic developer-orientated question. Knowing the number for pie would be a breeze for them, but you could see many of the journalists furrowing their brows and secretly Googling the answer on their phones (myself included). 

Meanwhile, HoloLens wearers could see these virtual characters tottering about from up high and shoot ‘lightening bolts’ at them. They could be identified by VR users by a brain hovering above their head.

The interaction between the two circled back to what Kipman was saying earlier in the day about augmented versus virtual reality: “These are not separate concepts; they are different points on a mixed reality continuum. We should be thinking ‘and’ and not about. ‘And’ meaning including, embracing, unifying.”

It also shows that after talking the talk around its dreams for a mixed reality world for a long time, Microsoft has finally delivered a platform that can support both AR and VR. The two different headsets worked harmoniously together in a virtual environment, and what's more - it was actually pretty fun. 

And though shooting lightening bolts at each other is a fun, simplistic way of demonstrating how people can interact within this virtual world, this tech has a lot of potential, so it’ll be exciting to see where it goes next.  

But all that pondering about mixed reality aside, as I emerged from the Academy session, I was envisaging a world where I could pop on a headset and be transported to a real tropical island instead of a cartoon one. Make it happen, Microsoft.

Elly Strang travelled to Microsoft Build 2017 in Seattle courtesy of Microsoft.
Photography by Rose Behar.