Some of the earliest demos of graphical computer UIs included pens. You could draw right on the screen! What could be better? Well, it turns out the mouse is better. Like, a lot better. Unless you're drawing, but you're probably not drawing. You're clicking and double clicking and right clicking and dragging and dropping. Scrolling and pinch-to-zooming are better with fingers, drawing is better with a stylus, but everything else computers do seems best suited to the tried and true keyboard and mouse paradigm. Even video games control better with a mouse and keyboard — gamepads are more comfortable, but the mouse is more precise and the keyboard is more expressive.
And then, in 2013, Oculus Rift showed up and added a new computer input: your whole head. Imagine mouse input as a continuous stream of X and Y coordinates. It's simply perfect for navigating a 2D plane. The Oculus Rift is a stream of Pitch, Roll, and Yaw; directional information that makes it perfect for looking around inside a virtual 3D world.
When Microsoft first unveiled HoloLens, I didn't know what to think about it. Like, I knew I was being blown away, but why? I've seen augmented reality demos before. I've seen head mounted displays before... why was this so special?
And, as an aside, I'd like to point out how terrible of a track record Microsoft has with this sort of project. Most of Microsoft's bleeding edge demos come from its Microsoft Research arm. If I had a dollar for every project Microsoft has demonstrated in its incubation phase, only to be beaten to market by a more passionate competitor, I might be able to afford a HoloLens.
Oh, and don't get me started on Kinect. A true technological breakthrough, completely squandered on Microsoft's inept execution, lack of imagination, and bizarrely placed conservatism. The Kinect was the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history when it launched, and brought about a revolution in robotics vision, and I can't name a single first party title that's even tolerable to play.
But HoloLens is different, I believe, for one simple reason: it's too good an idea for even Microsoft to screw up.
Old and the new, together in harmony
Okay so remember when I was talking about X and Y coordinates? Well, the way I'm thinking about HoloLens is that it's X and Y and Z coordinates, but for your head. And your whole body, really. The location tracking makes the 3D world of computers as navigable as the 2D world of computers. Oculus Rift can track many of these movements, but you mostly have to stay in your chair, and you need a controller of some sort to really "get around." By not blocking your vision, HoloLens can put 3D objects in a world you're already really great at navigating: the real one.
HoloLens is too good an idea for even Microsoft to screw up.
And what's funny is that this is the exact inverse solution of the Kinect. By making Kinect stationary, you became the input device. Literally, Microsoft's tagline was "You are the controller." But have any of us ever aspired to be a computer mouse? No, with the exception of hilarious Halloween costumes, we prefer to wield the computer mouse. Kinect watched us, judged us, and then issued simple commands to the Xbox at its pleasure. It lacked the precision of a mouse, with all the discomfort of exercise. Now that the camera is on our heads and looking out, it makes the whole world an input.
My favorite use cases for HoloLens are where what I'll call the "UI bandwidth" of 2D paradigms was too limited. Like studying, for instance. Many of the ways people like to study are inherently spatial. Fold a corner of a page, put a sticky note on something, flip over a flash card to check your answer, cross reference three books at once, look up something in the index while one hand holds your place. UI bandwidth is bi-directional, and in the case of studying it's predominately pointed toward the user. The physical location of objects in 3D space, and the 3D manipulation of those objects, give a human's memory more "hooks" to hang knowledge on.
That stupid Skype icon
But you know what my favorite part of Microsoft's demo was? That stupid Skype icon in the hallway next to the kitchen. Because I'd never thought of it before, but of course I'd put the Skype icon in the hallway next to the kitchen. And I know it's dumb and a waste of time... but I sort of want a Skype icon in the hallway next to the kitchen now. It just seems right. It makes computer things seem more human. And Microsoft HoloLens is the only thing on the planet making that a reality for me.
So thanks, Microsoft. Thanks for the future of computing.
Addendum: Just in case I didn't come across as enough of a Microsoft hater / doubter / denier in this post, I would just like to point out that realtime tracking of both head location / orientation and the 3D dimensions of all objects in your field of view are, like, absurdly hard computer problems. And then doing it in real time? And stacking on virtual objects that won't jitter around and make you want to throw up? Just absurd. But all the impressions I've read sound promising, so maybe Microsoft is just really smart and I'm still holding mid-90s Windoze grudges and should be sorry.