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Microsoft HoloLens: What Our Desire For Hyper-Reality Reveals About Us

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Microsoft

Eugene Gan - published on 02/08/15

Viewing the world through holographic glasses

Along with their announcement of Windows 10, Microsoft just unveiled their latest gizmo: augmented reality goggles that superimpose 3D objects on your physical environment. They call it the HoloLens (even though technically, the objects it creates aren’t holograms at all) and it’s possible you could be wearing one by the end of this year. Enthralled? You’re not alone. The trailer for their

has already garnered more than 12.8 million views. The trailer’s voice over seems to echo a universal desire: “What if we could go further? What if we could go beyond the screen?” Of course, the whole commercial is made to suggest how smooth, convenient, and easy your life could be if you had a HoloLens. Would it? With the increasing competition for the limited real estate that is your face, do we really need more wearables? After all, even Google Glass announced that they’re going to close down the consumer end of that business. But the HoloLens is poised to be uniquely different and appears to enable you to do some pretty cool Tony Stark stuff.

For starters, it’s more integrated into our environment than Oculus Rift, and because it’s in the Windows 10 family and comes with a Microsoft Holo Studio application that allows you to create, share, and print all sorts of 3D objects, it already promises more applications than Google Glass. There’s no lag and it reacts to head movements naturally, alleviating any dizziness normally associated with virtual reality goggles. It does its magic by bouncing light between three glass layers to trick your brain into seeing virtual objects in your environment. That in and of itself is impressive because 3D objects do not by default recognize the dimensional contours of your environment. What Microsoft is suggesting is that its HoloLens’ three data processors map your 3D environment in real time – especially if you’re moving from place to place within your environment and so changing the apparent contours around you – so as to superimpose its own virtual objects within your space. Plus it’s untethered, which makes it doubly impressive imagining the portable processing power you’re wearing and carrying around with you. This kind of technology cannot work without the faster data processors we have today. Microsoft calls the processor that primarily handles this kind of information a holographic processor unit (HPU), as opposed to the central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processor unit (GPU) already residing within modern computers. They’re understandably guarded about this technology, so how their HPU can map your environment accurately in all settings and lighting conditions is beyond me: I can’t envision consistent accuracy for everyone everywhere. For example, low light, deep shadows, hot spots created by intense light, or stained glass window images cast on objects in a room can throw an image processor for a loop in the same way your camera has trouble taking tonally balanced pictures under extreme light or dark conditions.

Microsoft’s trailer also shows the HoloLens projecting Minecraft constructs onto your living room floor and furniture. You can also use hand gestures to manipulate these virtual objects. Microsoft calls it “air-tapping." Granted, it’s all part of a prepared video and not an actual live demo, but the idea is tantalizing nevertheless, even though it begs the question: how is this experience different from my kids and I building Lego cities around the living room? Ok, so we won’t have to dismantle the whole thing when we’re done, or have little bricks lying around for you to step on, but the point remains: it’s still Lego. Plus, while it’s good for casual video games, I doubt video game players who are immersing themselves in “hardcore” worlds are going to jump on this bandwagon. The need for immersion within a totally different world precludes the blended environment of the HoloLens. For example, I can’t envision a virtual flight simulator as a good application for the HoloLens because my down-to-earth living room furniture blended with the virtual environment at 15,000 feet altitude doesn’t an immersive flight experience make. As for beaming Netflix on your walls, depending on how much Microsoft intends to sell the HoloLens for, it would either save us the cost of purchasing large screen TV’s or simply devolve into a glorified Netflix viewer.


Unfortunately, some of the proposals for the application of the HoloLens involve pornography, while others border on the absurd: we already have video games above urinals that encourage patrons to aim streams left and right to play the game. Do we need augmented reality when we go pee or is this the latest evolution to bringing reading material into bathrooms?

As with other media releases, there is much discussion about gaming and entertainment and about our wants, but little if any about determining the needs of others, like how the HoloLens might help the disabled interact with their environments. Because the HoloLens also accepts voice input, a person could speak to switch tools or gaze to make selections. Unfortunately, there’s no haptic control and feedback, meaning that there’s no way to hold objects and manipulate them in 3D space: your interactions at this point are limited to tap, gaze, tap. There’s much room for improvement here because our heads aren’t made for precisely selecting objects – that’s what hands and fingers are for.

That said, Microsoft’s trailer shows how much easier it can be to get DIY help. To fix a leaky faucet you can view instructions with a YouTube-like clip of someone explaining how to do it live, along with directional arrows superimposed over what you’re working on right next to the faucet itself – which is of course great until you realize you don’t have the leverage to twist something loose or own the right tools to get the job done right. I doubt the HoloLens will put plumbers out of business anytime soon. In fact, some professionals could potentially run a booming business as “couch consultants," charging a fee to assist others in fixing devices from the comfort of their couch. All they need is a wireless connection and a tablet. It could open opportunities for instructions for playing a sport, dance lessons, repairing computers, you name it.

It could change the way the military operates: superimposing 3D battlefield maps and controlling aircraft and drones over foreign terrains from behind the battlefront. It could change the way we meet others: recognizing faces and projecting information about them (and in turn, about us). Privacy would be an issue again just as it was with Facebook. With continued development, this technology could change shared experiences and how we engage augmented environments together: driving, getting directions, going on vacations, getting information on famous landmarks superimposed next to the landmarks themselves, going to museums and getting added value with the narratives and background contexts of the paintings and sculptures. The fact that you can slide objects from your pc to your immediate environment means easily selectable and customizable wallpaper for your physical desktop. How about customizable wallpaper on all your walls? Or even animated wallpaper graphics on your walls, tables, floors, ceilings. Your environment could get busy real fast.

Why this widespread desire for hyper-reality? Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, the power to create 3D objects and see them in physical space shares in the creative joy of Our Lord. In a deeper sense, going further beyond our screens and reality as Microsoft advertises, reflects a desire for the greater reality and joys of heaven, of being authentically connected with others, with Our Lord, Our Blessed Mother, and the communion of saints.

Unadulterated reality is increasingly seen as a quirk and the person without a gadget an oddity. It takes effort and imagination to carve out time and space in which media doesn’t intrude. I’m not a luddite. I teach my sons and students to create and program video games on various platforms, design digital art on tablets, and craft special effects in professional applications. I’m a media specialist and professor. My life has been enriched by the media. I can locate research from anywhere I have net access. I can hold my iPad up to the sky and see where satellites and stars are. And I can play, watch, talk, IM, lecture, Skype, and be entertained without ever leaving my room. But do we really need media distractions amidst the media distractions? Do we need to augment our media? Do we need to fiddle with second screens while watching a movie? What is it that is so lacking about our current reality that we feel compelled to IM with others about the show we’re watching? Does it benefit or belittle us to have multiple widgets floating around our field of view wherever we go? Lives will change – for better and worse. Brokers could have their stock quotes hovering like specters around them. Sport fans, their replay highlights and scores. Online shopping enthusiasts (addicts?), their price quotes. And you, what will you have constantly with you? Will Jesus have room in our minds and hearts? It already takes effort to call to mind His presence in our lives amidst the media of today. What directions will tomorrow’s media pull us? Technology can change our lives, but it doesn’t change who we are. We’re still and ever will be, created in the image and likeness of God, called to be His sons and daughters, called to a reality far greater than the one we know and sometimes childishly cling to.

What would Our Lord Jesus say if he were trying on a HoloLens? In my mind’s eye, I can see Our Beloved Lord like a parent looking at a child’s drawing, say, “Cool,” and smile. Then he’d take it off, look at you knowingly and add, “But eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and heart has not conceived what I’ve prepared for you who love me.” All said with that loving twinkle in His eye.

Dr Eugene Ganis faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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