Hololens unit.

Hololens unit

Earlier this month the Digital Learning team hosted the first workshop for the Hololens early adopter group. If you haven’t heard of Microsoft’s mixed reality headset, which enables users to interact with virtual holograms and real objects in the physical world, you can find out more by watching the video below:

iSolutions purchased 5 of these units in June this year. Since then members of the Early Adopters Group have been trying out the kit; either as an ‘out of the box’ experience, using apps already available to install, or uploading their own models and applications.

Hololens limitations:

There are a couple of downsides to this technology from the off; the device is well known for a limited field of view producing a ‘letterboxing’ effect, and there is of course an issue of scalability. Retailing at a starting price of £2,719 it’s not yet possible to put one on the head of every student (another reason why we are exploring smartphone AR and VR applications).

So why try it?

Well…remember this?

Ooh. That’s so…last century.

From the heady days of 1999’s flip phones, smartphones and tablet technology has developed at astonishing rates. The devices that we used just 7 years ago are very different in terms of capability and power; the original iPad was announced in 2010!

So experimenting with Hololens at these early stages is an interesting challenge and opportunity. Product development is, of course, top secret but smaller, faster, and more powerful will feature on many of today’s technology roadmaps. Things can only get better…or so we are led to believe.

Our innovators

So how have those lucky few in the early adopters group been getting on? This workshop was the time to showcase those achievements and to highlight some further challenges with the technology. Archaeology and Engineering have both been aided by iSolutions’ own Technical Innovation and Development Team (TIDT) in the last few months, and TIDT have been working on a few things of their own too. Pate Tanner and Trevor Rowe (both with different use cases in Archaeology) uploaded scalable models of shipwrecks and reconstructions into their headsets.

Pat finds his model after having lost it in our large room; it happens to everyone!
Pat finds his model after having lost it in our large room; it happens to everyone!


Trevor brings ship plans to life with integrated video.
Trevor brings ship plans to life with integrated video.

On this occasion the lovely people in TIDT left the zombies behind in the office (do ask TIDT about it if you meet them!). Instead they have been working on a way of interacting with equipment remotely. Rob used a hologram in the headset to switch on lights on a scale model on the other side of the room.

The lights are on…but there’s nobody home
Potential for interacting with equipment in other campuses.
Potential for interacting with equipment in other campuses.

Results so far

The work so far has shown us some intriguing possibilities…but for the right use cases. Engineering found that for their purposes, fully immersive VR was actually a better experience and are now developing a dedicated VR suite using HTC Vive. This was also echoed by at least one innovator in Archaeology, not least because the Hololens Developer Toolkit crashed his high-spec laptop, but also because full immersive VR was a more appropriate experience for exploring a reconstructed ship. However, there are still suitable use cases in Archeology, and Music is another area with potential. In fact, that’s where one of the units has gone to next.

The endeavours of our innovators also highlighted some significant challenges with the technology; more so than we first thought. But it’s good to know, right? They include:

  • Learning curves and complexity of uploading models into the unit. You need a specialists for this, or be prepared to become one.
  • Finding existing simple models is difficult; we need a university-wide approach and repository.
  • As entertaining as it is watching someone else interact with apparently thin air, this wears off quickly. For the audience to see a true view of augmented reality, you need a second Hololens in a Spectator Rig. Higher costs and hard to justify the pedagogical benefits at this stage.
  • Build time can take even longer as you have to re-upload models with every minor edit. Alternative technologies (e..g the Vive) have better integration and don’t require this.
  • Issues around lag and size of the models; our innovators found these fell short of Microsoft say is possible.

So what’s next?

Well, our early adopter group spans several disciplines. Although our first few haven’t found the right use case, the rest of the group might have more success. There’s more work to be done before we decide whether to wait and watch until the technology improves to a point where it’s more practical, or if we have some excellent examples to put into practice now. For those that find fully immersive VR is a preferred option, we are working on supporting adoption of this too. The Digital Learning Team supports a Virtual Fieldwork working group. Before the Christmas holidays we will be hosting an external company that specialises HTC VIVE experiences. If you would like to know more about this (and try it out!) please contact us.

Hololens workshop: at the edge of innovation

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