One of the pleasures of revisiting a film franchise is the sense that one is coming back to a familiar setting with familiar people – such is the feeling of returning to the Star Wars universe.
When I went to see The Last Jedi on December 16 (3D + IMAX) I underwent an odd version of this experience. As the heroes descended on the world of Crait, a red planet dusted with white dust, I had the sense that I had been there before. This was because I had been playing Star Wars Battlefront II over the previous week; in the multiplayer game, the planet Crait had just been introduced as a new location for battles and I’d been struggling against Storm Troopers (or as a Storm Trooper) through the trenches and tunnels of Crait for many, repetitive hours. Not only that, but the 3D models used to build the 3D battle world for the game appeared to be based on the same visual assets used for the movie.
And so, when I saw the way the light reflected off of the red mud on the walls of the Crait trenches, I had an “aha” moment of recognition. My spatial memory told me I had been here before.
We might say that this was a case of déjà vu, since I had never been to Crait in reality – but only in a video game. But then one must recall that the “vu” experience of the déjà vu also never happened – the CGI world on the screen is not a place that exists in any reality. I had experienced a virtual nostalgia for a space that didn’t exist – a sense of returning home when there is no home to return to.
We aren’t quite in the territory of Blade Runner manufactured memories, yet, but we are a step closer. Games and technology that give us a sense of place and affect that peculiar and primeval faculty of the brain (the ability to remember places that made our hunter-gatherer ancestors so effective and that was later exploited to form the Ars Memoriae) will have unexpected side effects.
I think this is a new type of experience and one that marks an inflection point in mankind’s progress – if I may be allowed to be a bit grandiose. For while in all previous generations, mimetic technologies such as writing, encyclopedias, computers, and the internet, have all tended to diminish our natural memories, this new age of virtual reality and 3D spaces has, for the first time, started to provide us with a superfluity of unexpected and artificial memories.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and XR (or xR) are terms floating around that seem to describe the same things – but maybe not – and sometimes people get very angry if you use the terms incorrectly (or at least they say they do).
The difficulty is that these terms come from different sources and for different reasons, yet the mind naturally seeks to find order and logic in the world it confronts. A great English historical example is the way Anglo-Saxon words for animals have complementary Norman words for the cooked versions of those beasts: cow and beef (boeuf), pig and pork (porc), sheep and mutton (mouton). It is how the mind deals with a superfluity of words – we try to find a reason to keep them all.
So as an experiment and a public service, here’s a guide to using these terms in a consistent way. My premise is that these terms are a part of natural language and describe real things rather than marketing terms meant to either boost products or boost personal agendas (such as the desire to be the person who coined a new term). Those constraints actually make it pretty easy to fit all these phrases into a common framework and uses grammar to enforce semantic distinctions:
1) Virtual reality is a noun for a 3D simulated reality that you move through by moving your body. A sense of space is an essential component of VR. VR includes 360 videos as well as immersive 3D games on devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft Immersive headsets.
2) Augmented reality is a noun for an experience that combines digital objects and the real world, typically by overlaying digital content on top of a video of a real world (e.g. Pokémon Go) or by overlaying digital content on top of a transparent display (e.g. HoloLens, Meta, Magic Leap, Daqri).
3) Mixed reality is an adjective that modifies nouns in order to describe both virtual and augmented reality experiences. For instance:
a. A mixed reality headset enables virtual reality to be experienced.
b. The Magic Leap device will let us have mixed reality experiences.
4) xR is an umbrella term for the nouns virtual reality and augmented reality. You use xR generically when you are talking about broad trends or ambiguously when you are talking in a way that includes both VR and AR (for instance, I went to an event about xR where different MR experiences were on display). xR may, optionally, also cover AI and ML (aren’t they the same thing?).
This isn’t necessarily how anyone has consistently used these terms in 2017, but I feel like there is a trend towards these usages. I’m going to try to use them in this way in 2018 and see how it goes.
There are lots of great video tutorials and advanced HoloLens materials online that even people who work with HoloLens aren’t always aware of. I’d like to fix that in this post.
1. The Fundamentals
If you are still working through the basics with the HoloLens, then I highly recommend the course that Dennis Vroegop and I did for LinkedIn Learning: App Development for Microsoft HoloLens. We approached it with the goal of providing developers with everything we wish we had known when we started working with HoloLens in early 2016. The course was filmed in a studio at the Lynda.com campus in Carpinteria, California, so the overall quality is considerably higher than most other courses you’ll find.
2. The Mixed Reality Toolkit (HoloToolkit)
Once you understand the fundamentals of working with the HoloLens, the thing to learn is the ins-and-outs of the Mixed Reality Toolkit, which is the open source SDK for working with the HoloLens APIs. Stephen Hodgson, a Mixed Reality developer at Valorem, is one of the maintainers of (and probably biggest developer on) the MRTK. He does live streams on Saturdays to address people’s questions about the toolkit. His first two hour-long streamcasts cover the MRTK Input module:
These courses provide the deepest dive you’re ever likely to get about developing for HoloLens.
3. HoloLens Game Tutorial
Sometimes it is helpful to have a project to work through from start to finish. Chad Carter provides this with a multipart series on game development for Mixed Reality. So far there are five lessons … but the course is ongoing and well worth keeping up with.
Jason Odom’s tutorial series deals with using Unity effectively for HoloLens. It brings home the realization that most of 3D development revolves around moving, resizing, hiding and revealing objects. It’s written for an older version of the toolkit, so some things will have changed since then. By the way, Jason’s theme song for this series is an ear worm. Consider yourself warned.
There’s also, of course, Microsoft’s official tutorial series known as the HoloLens Academy. It’s thorough and if you follow through the lessons, you’ll gain a broad understanding of the capabilities of the HoloLens device. One thing to keep in mind is that the tutorials are not always synced up with the latest MRTK so don’t get frustrated when you encounter a divergence between what the tutorials tell you to do and what you find in the MRTK, which is being updated at a much more rapid rate than the tutorials are.
6. Summing up
You’re probably now wondering if watching all these videos will make you a HoloLens expert. First of all, expertise isn’t something that you arrive at overnight. It takes time and effort.
Second of all – yeah. Pretty much. HoloLens development is a very niche field and it hasn’t been around for very long. It has plenty of quirks but all these videos will address those quirks either directly or obliquely. If you follow all these videos, you’ll know most of everything I know about the HoloLens, which iskindaalot.
Certain people are bellwethers for creative technology and you want to check in on what they are up to every 3 to 6 months to find out where the zeitgeist of the coding world is headed. I’m thinking of people like Kyle McDonald, James George and Phoenix Perry – folks who, per Jean Cocteau’s maxim, manage to stay on the avant-garde even when everyone else has caught up to what had been the avant-garde half a year earlier.
Phoenix is currently teaching physical computing in London. She has spoken and led workshops at most of the leading conferences devoted to emerging technology. You can (and should) keep up with her adventures on her website, phoenixperry.com, and on twitter.
What movie has left the most lasting impression on you? 2046.
What is the earliest video game you remember playing? Pong.
Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? The women of Code Liberation. Over the duration of the organization have radically shifted how I think and who I am. Mentoring younger women in tech has changed who I am. The conversations we have are inspired and open up my mind to a deeper, more compassionate way to live.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? This week. The river is different every time you step into it.
What inspires you to learn? Humility at how little I know.
What do you need to believe in order to get through the day? I need to believe the people around me value my work and contributions.
What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend? I hate Opera. Have no real reason why other than it sounds so annoying to my ears. What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do?
One that allows me to interact with one experience fluidly across contexts.
With the Mixed Reality Toolkit 2017.1.2, the Keyword Manager was finally retired, after being “obsolete” for the past several toolkit iterations.
As the toolkit matures, many key components are being refactored to make them more flexible and architecturally proper. The downside to this – and the source of much frustration – is that these refactors tend to upend what developers are used to doing. The Keyword Manager is a great example of this. It was one of the best Unity style interfaces for HoloLens / MR because it encapsulated a lot of complex code in a easy to use drag-and-drop style visual.
The challenge for those working on the toolkit – Stephen Hodgson, Neeraj Wadhwa, and all the others – is to refactor without too badly breaking the interface abstractions we’ve all gotten used to. For the KeywordManager refactor, this was accomplished by breaking the original component into two parts, a SpeechInputSource and a SpeechInputHandler.
The SpeechInputSource lets you determine if speech recognition starts up automatically and the recognition confidence level (you want this higher if you are using ambiguous or short phrases like “Start” and “Stop”). The Persistent Keywords field lets you keep the same speech recognition phrases between different scenes in your app. Most important, though, is the Keywords list. This lets you add to a list of phrases you want to be recognized in your app.
The SpeechInputHandler is the component that lets you determine what happens when a phrase is recognized (the response). You click on the plus icon to add a response, select the phrase that will be handled in the Keyword field, and then can drag and drop gameobjects into your response and select the script and method that is called.
The one thing you need to remember to do is the check off the Is Global Listener field if you want behavior similar to the old KeywordManager. This will listen for all speech commands all the time. If Is Global Listener is not selected, then only the SpeechInputHandler the user is gazing at will receive commands. This is really useful if you have multiple copies of the same object and only want to apply commands to a particular instance at a time.
Roland Smeenk belongs to a species of coders variously known as creative technologists, new media developers, creative designers, etc. As with human civilization, there came a time when coders were expected to settle down in one place and learn to cultivate their code repositories while also effectively implementing division of labor and managerial techniques in order to get us where we are today.
But there are always the hunter-gatherers like Roland who insist on traveling unworn paths, who resist division of labor and want to learn everything for themselves. They stand athwart history, it is true, but they are also the innovators who determine what history will become.
Roland wrote and published the HoloLens Shader Pack to the Unity Asset Store. This lets you have a range of configurable scanning effects like the ones you’ve probably seen in Microsoft’s official HoloLens demo reels – plus a lot more. It’s one of the earliest HoloLens related tools in the Asset Store and an essential component for anyone working on professional MR applications.
What movie has left the most lasting impression on you? Minority Report, because it envisioned future digital interfaces that are already technically feasible these days. From a human factors standpoint most of them are not what you would want in a system that requires efficient manipulation of data. However from an esthetics standpoint they provide a great inspiration for making interactive installations.
What is the earliest video game you remember playing? I remember playing Pong on my uncle’s television back in the seventies, but that was only one afternoon. It lasted until the eighties before my father bought an Apple IIe personal computer. I played only a few games on that system with it’s monochrome screen. One game that impressed me was “Dung Beetles”, because of the audio sample “We’ve gotcha” that was coming from a speaker that normally only produced simple beeps.
Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? I believe there’s a mix of people and experiences that influence your way of thinking in different areas. So what comes to mind are my parents, wife, friends, former colleagues, people I follow online and authors of books I read, all in different areas.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? Three questions ago.
What’s a programming skill people assume you have but that you are terrible at? I don’t know what people are assuming about my programming skills. They are probably better than my mechanical engineering skills that I earned my master’s degree for many moons ago.
What inspires you to learn? There’s a lot of ground to be explored in mixing the digital and the real world in interesting new ways. And this goes well beyond the use of HoloLens. For interactive experiences it often starts by drawing inspiration from sci-fi movies, music videos, games, artworks and new technology, but I also like a good story as a starting point. This eventually leads to what I need to learn. Lately these are often areas where no software is involved.
What do you need to believe in order to get through the day? That the things I create will touch people in a positive way.
What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend? That there is no life after death. At least this reminds me to live life to the fullest.
What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do? There will not be one killer app, but instead it will be a ubiquitous ecosystem that understands us and helps us do all kinds of everyday tasks. This will give us more free time to spend with family and friends and frees our minds for other things.
My friend Dennis Vroegop and I have recorded a course for LinkedIn Learning (Lynda.com) called Developing Apps for the Microsoft HoloLens. We wanted this to be the get up and go course covering the HoloLens that takes you from zero to 60, while also providing a larger understanding of the device itself, it’s place in history, and what the current market for the HoloLens is.
As we say in the course, this is what we wished we had had when we were starting off with HoloLens a year ago. All in all, I think we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. LinkedIn Learning is offering a free initial month to their video courses, so you can watch the whole thing and start programming on the emulator, if you want, with free software from Microsoft and Unity. All it takes is a will. This is the way.
Our producer on the shoot, Dennis Meyer, has written his insights on the whole process and what he now things about AR and VR after going through this adventure with me and Dennis V.
I hope you enjoy the course. Please let me know what you think in the comments.
Sky Zhou is a HoloLens developer who has spent the past year exploring some of the most difficult MR development problems such as storing and retrieving spatial maps and the ins-and-outs of the locatable camera coordinate system. He recently tested out his Room Scanner with help from members of the HoloDevelopers slack group. You can signup to try the public beta now.
If his name sounds familiar, you may be remembering his earlier work on a Pokemon fighting app for the HoloLens.
What movie has left the most lasting impression on you? I have two, The Matrix and Inception; both pose philosophical questions about the nature of existence and reality.
In addition, I like The Matrix for its vision of the future, in terms of the possibility of simulating a world with computer programs and its depiction of the power and danger of AI. I like Inception for its crafty metaphoric story about story telling itself as an art form. HoloLens brought us a giant step closer to the visions of simulated 3D world and alternate realities like dreams. Mixed reality will be a great art form for storytelling.
What is the earliest video game you remember playing? I didn’t have much play time on video games when I was little. I can remember glympses of super mario, street fighters, and ninja turtles. However, I remember very well the first computer game I played. It was an RPG based on the Romance of Three Kingdoms. I enjoyed the game and the story so much. I wish I can build something like that in mixed reality with HoloLens.
Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher from 600 BC. It’s hard to explain all his deep thinking here and my interpretation might be flawed. However, if I have to narrow down the idea: things are observed and defined by us, and they can be observed and defined in many other ways. Therefore, nothing has to be absolute and we need not attach ourselves to extremes defined by us. Once you see that, you can always reach a balance, a compromise, or a feasible solution. It really helps me keep an open mind to this world. The concept of mixed reality could help us understand this fine point. Many different observations and representations can be made in the same physical space, depending on what apps you are running and seeing through the HoloLens, so we can all agree that we don’t always get the same perspective and the same information, and therefore we end up forming different conclusions and decisions.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? In general, I change my mind based on additional information and evidence. For example, I used to think Microsoft was a lazy non-innovative company that puts no effort into making another great product and is just milking profit from its Windows and Office software. However, the first public demo of HoloLens in January 2015 blew my mind and completely changed how I see Microsoft.
What’s a programming skill people assume you have but that you are terrible at? People assume I have some fixed programming skills in some languages, but what I really have is the ability to solve problems, by doing research and experimenting. In this regard, I owe many thanks to the awesome developer community around HoloLens and windows mixed reality.
What inspires you to learn? 1. Problems! I love to apply knowledge to solve problems. It pushes me to learn new things and often lead to even more new knowledge. For example, the frame rate was poor on my first demo of photo-textured room scanning on HoloLens. In order to improve performance on this app, I learned how to use compute shaders.
2. Community. With a great community around HoloLens, you feel you are not alone in this crazy endeavor, and there are people who value what you do. Other developers’ awesome demos also inspire me to do more myself. The feedback I get is the most valuable for alerting me to problems and pushing me to make my apps better. For example, when I saw 3 comments about poor frame rate on my Youtube channel, I knew I had to figure out a way to address it.
What do you need to believe in order to get through the day? There is another problem to solve and a new thing to learn! Plus my HoloLens is still working!
What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend? I hold a view that Microsoft got it right this time, with their innovative approach to mixed reality. I can see consumer and business adoption at a massive scale because this technology truly brings amazing utility never seen before, once certain limitations are worked out (such as price, field of view, weight, full gesture recognition, etc.). Windows Mixed Reality is like an extension of Windows with all the familiarities from the existing flat desktop, but in 3D space. This familiarity in non-gaming uses of PCs makes it much more attractive to consumers and businesses.
What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do? It depends on what pain it kills. Different people experience different pains. For example, a common pain is a long commute time. One possible solution is that company offices can be significantly reduced in size and most people work from home or anywhere they choose. Many large companies are currently heading in this direction already. Besides using mixed reality tools for creative 3D art work, an immersive virtual home office could improve focus, and shared experiences with the holo-presence of colleagues could improve teamwork and collaborations. Thus, the effectiveness and efficiency of working from home can be improved.
The ultimate dream of mixed reality is that you have 3D digital information and holograms overlay on top of a real physical environment no matter where you go and users can interact with them in shared experiences. Think of Pokémon Go plus Google street view, but with useful and relevant information wherever and whenever you need them. This requires much finer mapping—finer than Google street view currently provides—to your desk, your fridge, your car, and even yourself. This idea is not original to me: Ori Inbar wrote a great article recently about it and termed it “the AR Cloud.” When that happens, in essence we will have also created a massive interactive virtual world like the Matrix.
Stephen is an immersive experiences developer at Valorem. He is also a moderator and the most prolific contributor to the HoloToolkit (now the Mixed Reality Toolkit). If there has been a change to the toolkit over the past year that improved your developer experience, Stephen probably made it. Moreover, he does this in his free time.
I spent an evening online with him about two weeks ago fixing an issue with automatic builds for Visual Studio 2017 and spent much of that time wondering how one person could maintain so much knowledge about such a large and complex code base. He is the centurion at the gate, finding satisfaction when our Mixed Reality projects go well and happy when he can provide tools to make our development easier. The next time you successfully deliver a project, please consider sending Stephen a thank you.
What movie has left the most lasting impression on you? Arrival was pretty interesting. I really find time travel and their paradoxes quite fascinating. The looping nature of the alien language and the connection to the movies main theme really helped drive the action. I also loved how the movie started at both the beginning and end. I enjoy many movies that range across different genres, from sci-fi to action.
What is the earliest video game you remember playing? Chrono Cross by Square Enix is definitely the one I remember most vividly, but I’m pretty sure the first video game I ever played was the original Mario game on the Nintendo.
Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? This one is pretty difficult to answer. I’m not sure if any one person had a huge impact on why I think the way I do. I’ve always been off in my own thoughts thinking about how light, electromagnetism, and matter work together—oh and also the paradoxes of time travel, haha.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? I feel like I change my mind a lot. Generally, I like to approach things from many different angles and evaluate them to see whichever option is the best, and even then I’m likely to make an adjustment down the line. When it matters, I try to corner myself into making a decision that I can’t back out of.
What’s a programming skill people assume you have but that you are terrible at? Professionally I like to stay pretty honest about my abilities and accept work that fits my skill level while still challenging me to grow. I definitely feel like I need to get stronger in networking and understanding the lower level languages a bit more, although the need for memory management is no longer a requirement, it’s nice to know exactly why a function or class works the way it does.
What inspires you to learn? Leaning is a part of life, and is essential to survival. On that note, I’ve always liked the notion that the only way to learn is to make mistakes. I’ve always found it frustrating when people can’t admit they’re wrong about something, because they are admitting they don’t make mistakes, which in turn leads me to believe that they’re incapable of learning new ideas.
What do you need to believe in order to get through the day? Tomorrow never comes. I usually don’t think about the end of the day until it arrives, and by then I’m already planning tomorrow.
What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend? Not sure how to answer this one. I usually don’t hold a view that can’t stand on its own.
What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do? The whole idea of mixed reality apps is to bring the virtual into the real world. There’s been a big push recently about how the internet will dramatically change after the association with a physical space and it’s virtual space—like a webpage or other virtual element—can be brought together to create a meaningful productive space.
What book have you recommended the most? I haven’t read an actual book in quite a while, but growing up I was definitely a bookworm. Now I read code all day. If I had to recommend reading, it’s the new APIs and change logs from Unity, Windows 10 SDK, and the Mixed Reality Toolkit for Unity.
Nate is a multimedia engineer currently freelancing in New York City. He is also a good friend going back to our time together at Razorfish Emerging Experiences where we worked side-by-side pushing the envelope on interactive installation projects with Surface tables, IoT, Kinect, tablets, phones, VR, and several devices we hacked together ourselves.
Over a year ago, while most people playing with HoloLens were still finding their way around the Unity IDE, Nate was exploring how to build artistic effects for the HoloLens using DirectX and seeing how hard he could push the HoloLens GPU. Since then, he’s been working on various HoloLens and HTC Vive projects to earn his bread while pursuing his ultimate goal of creating cool interactive experiences involving music, lighting, technology, dance and people. He’s someone I’ve always admired as much for the clarity of his artistic vision as for his technical prowess.
What movie has left the most lasting impression on you? I’ve never been able to sit still long enough to gain a real appreciation for movies. I only watch movies on airplanes these days. Fight Club had a pretty big impact on me, though. I first saw it at a very impressionable age and there always seems to be relevant scenes popping into my head.
What is the earliest video game you remember playing? It’s hard for me to place… I grew up with an engineer for a Dad and surrounded by techy folks. I remember playing tennis on VirtualBoy. We had some early atari system as well. I also had a Macintosh SE as my first computer (older than me) that I used to play this weird 2.5D pong game called Shufflepuck Café.
Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think? I’m influenced by many people in my life. I believe you should try to glean something from everyone you admire and respect. I’ve had many great mentors along the way (including James).
My parents, of course, taught me a ton about how to live and reach my goals. My Dad taught me everything I know about computers. When I was young we’d go on long drives together and he’d be telling me about how CPU caches work. It was wild. My Mom has been an artist for many years and she’s always encouraged me to keep my artistic side alive.
For one I’ve never met, I’d pick Aldous Huxley. I discovered his writing at a time when I needed some direction in my life pretty badly. He has a way of capturing the intangible nature of the human experience with words better than any other writer I know, and it’s helped shape the way I consider my place in the world more than anyone else.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? I’m a Gemini, I do it constantly. Recently I changed my opinion of mobile AR. I thought it didn’t have much of a future. Gotta give it up to Apple and all the cool things people are making with ARKit. Pretty excited now.
What’s a skill people assume you have but that you are terrible at? I’m not very good at math, and I don’t really enjoy it. I failed Calculus II. Almost twice. I like making stuff with math though. Right now I’m working with chaotic systems to create natural movement and that is fun, but the analytical stuff isn’t for me.
What inspires you to learn? I think it’s really essential to what it means to be human. Plus I get bored easily. I always need to feel like I’m pushing some edge in one aspect or another. I feel very blessed that I’ve essentially made a career out of learning new things.
What do you need to believe in order to get through the day? This too shall pass.
What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend? Brunch culture was systemically created as a means of controlling the populace.
What will the future killer Mixed Reality app do? It will make talking about reality in terms of virtual, mixed. Our language will gradually phase out making any distinction between real and virtual. It’s funny how much time people spend debating what is AR/MR/VR. We need to move beyond that kind of thinking.
What book have you recommended the most? I recommend different books to different people. I don’t think I have a one size fits all answer, so I’m going for the audience here.
I’ve gotta say Neuromancer. It’s a must read for anyone in this field. Gibson literally wrote the book on our present and future in regards to the internet, mixed reality, and artificial intelligence. Oh, and he did it on a typewriter in the 80s.