Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing

In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which is being revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:

These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology: empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home at Stanford University, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

Now some background…

Programmatic Context for HoloLens

An enduring aspect of working on new technologies is stealthiness. It isn’t always the right approach – sometimes open collaboration beyond company borders has superior value to a quiet insular team. I learned the distinction well when I was in government (Intellipedia and A-Space were among our results) and in the startup culture in Silicon Valley before that.

But stealth has an electric appeal, the spark of conspiracy. At Microsoft and some other companies, the terminology is “Tented” – you have no clue about the work if you’re outside the tent, enforced as rigorously as in a SCIF.

Last March my Microsoft Institute team at Microsoft was quietly invited to add our efforts to a startling tented project in Redmond – one which was already gaining steam based on its revolutionary promise and technical wizardry, but which would require extraordinary stealth in development, for a variety of reasons.  I won’t share anything proprietary of course, but will say that our secrecy was Apple-esque, to use a Valley term of high praise.

That project is being announced to the world today, as HoloLens. I couldn’t be prouder of my (erstwhile) colleagues at Microsoft who are launching a revolutionary platform.  The praise is already rolling in.  WIRED‘s story is “Our Exclusive Hands-On With Microsoft’s Unbelievable New Holographic Goggles” while TechCrunch quickly assesses “Augmented reality has had some false starts on mobile, but in this context, it seems more viable, and thus more credible than it ever has before.”)

Next, let’s look at some background on the technical area which HoloLens now stands astride like a colossus among the Oculus Rift and Google Glass lesser-rans. Then below I’ll sketch some initial observations on the relevance for government uses and the world at large.

Technology Context: Ambient Computing

I’ve been writing about virtual reality and augmented reality (the VR/AR split) for a decade, first inside government and over the past seven years on this blog.  The term I prefer for the overall approach is “Ambient Computing” – combining advanced projection, immersion, machine vision, and environmental sensing.

Ambient computing devices are embedded all around in the environment, are addressable or usable via traditional human senses like sight, hearing, and touch/gestures, and can understand people’s intent, and even operate on their behalf.

Previous ShepherdsPi posts on Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality:

2008 War is Virtual Hell on emergent defense thinking about virtual reality

2008 Stretching collaboration with Embodied Social Proxies on robotics and VR

2009 Immersed in Augmented Reality, with the concept of “Instrumenting the World” as an important foundation for what is now called the Internet of Things.

2010 The promise of mobile augmented reality

2010 Air Everything

2011 Kinecting Communities

By 2010 I could look ahead (“Playing with virtual data in spatial reality“) and see clearly where we are heading based on trends:

We’re further along in this area than I thought we’d be five years ago, and I suspect we’ll be similarly surprised by 2015. In particular, there is great interest (both in and out of the government circles I travel in) in the “device-less” or environmental potential of new AR technologies. Not everyone will have a fancy smartphone on them at all times, or want to stare at a wall-monitor while also wearing glasses or holding a cellphone in front of them in order to access other planes of information. The really exciting premise of these new approaches is the fully immersive aspect of  “spatial AR,” and the promise of controlling a live 3D environment of realtime data.

That vision begins to become “virtually real” with today’s HoloLens announcement.

Competitive Context

I’ll leave to analysts, and to the holiday-market later this year and next, to judge where the competing technologies lie on the “hype-curve” of reality and utility.  I can list the efforts I’m playing closest attention to, and why:

Samsung’s Gear VR and Project Beyond: The Gear VR headset hasn’t lit expectations very brightly among analysts or the tech media, but it does now have alongside it the recently announced “Project Beyond,” a 360-degree panopticon camera module which is planned to capture a gigapixel of surrounding 3D footage every second, and stream that footage back to someone wearing a Gear VR headset, “essentially transporting them into that world.” Unlike HoloLens, it’s not a full computer.

Google Glass: The granddaddy of widely available AR experiments. Withdrawn from the public last week, not before inspiring a raft of venture-funded lookalikes which are also now also-rans. Google undoubtedly learned a great deal by dipping its giant toe into the virtual realm so enthusiastically with its Explorers program, but most of my friends who participated developed a “ho-hum” attitude about the device, which now gathers dust on shelves across the world.

Magic Leap: Google’s withdrawal of Glass can be seen in the context of the revelation that the search/advertising giant has now instead plowed in a large amount of cash to this start-up, followed by several A-list Silicon Valley VC funds. Magic Leap has now raised an astonishing $542 million in Series B funding – yes, that’s half a billion, with no product or launch date in sight, but a long list of developer openings on its website. (But don’t worry, the company just hired a novelist as its Chief Futurist.)

Oculus VR and the Rift (or its follow-ons): Oculus Rift has to be considered the leading rival to Microsoft’s HoloLens, so much so that Facebook acquired its parent startup company for an eye-opening $2 billion, ten months ago. Mark Zuckerberg at the time indicated patience and the long-view in his strategy, but industry watchers don’t expect a device release until late 2015 or 2016. And Rift, as of its descriptions to date, isn’t a full computing experience, merely a virtual-reality immersion.  There’s also no see-through aspect to its headset (unlike the visible real-world context of HoloLens), which has led to widely-reported nausea problems among Rift prototype users.

These all feel a bit laggard now, particularly because the companies involved (with the exception of Google) don’t have the experience of Microsoft in launching global computing platforms on which communities of developers can make magic.  Most importantly, none of these efforts are audacious enough to incorporate a full computing device (CPU, GPU, wirelessly connected) into a comfortably wearable device.

Bottom Line for Government…

Ambient computational resources are driving a new revolution, which the private sector is exploiting rapidly. That industrial and consumer revolution is in useful parallel with a virtuous cycle of ubiquitous sensing (Internet of Things) producing zettabytes of Big Data, being manipulated and mined by pioneering Machine Learning techniques for so-called “soft AI” (see IBM’s Irving Wladawsky-Berger in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “Soft Artificial Intelligence is Suddenly Everywhere“).

We humans, we of soft tissue, need all the help we can get to preside over those new and accelerating forces of technological change. The real magic is when our tools give us such powerful command in a simple and fun way. That is the promise of Holographic Computing, and HoloLens.

There are inevitably challenges. There’ll be devious uses of Holographic Computing, of course. Already we see the deceptive capabilities of regular screen-based “virtual reality,” and one can only imagine the perils of viewing these techniques from the wrong hands in full 3D immersion; check out these examples from the Emmy-winning special-video-effects (VFX) team behind HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”:

We can’t allow government to waddle slowly behind, as real people live their lives increasingly affected by immersive technologies used for good or ill.

Governments exist to answer the needs of their citizens; government agencies and personnel should be using up-to-date tools capable of keeping up with what individual citizens are using, if only to avoid embarrassment and dinosauric irrelevance!

Holographic Computing offers government agencies real benefits:

  • Unique and insanely powerful mission applications; the company has been working on training, modeling & simulation, event forensics, gesture-driven immersive big-data visualization, distance learning, and you can easily imagine uses in widely varied fields like remote logistics management, geospatial analytics, telemedicine… Anything that uses personal computing software.
  • Government workforce and workplace transformed by collaboration transformation already evident in early applications like HoloSkype;
  • Awareness of and contemporaneous familiarity with the technological changes affecting society, through consumer and entertainment channels.

I’ll end with the newly-released overall video on Microsoft’s Holographic Computing; note the NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab scenes studying the surface of Mars first-hand. Note the 3D modeling from HoloStudio and its infinite shelf of parts. Note the HoloSkype example of real-time step-by-step advice on technical repair, from someone remote yet as near as by your side.

Imagine what you could do with HoloLens….

Let me know your ideas.

Mix, Rip, Burn Your Research

You’ve done research; you’ve collected and sifted through mounds of links, papers, articles, notes and raw data. Shouldn’t there be a way to manage all that material that’s as easy and intuitive as, say, iTunes or Zune – helping you manage and share your snippets and research the way you share and enjoy your music?

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Free Tools for the New Scientific Revolution

Blogs are great for supplementing real-life events, by giving space and time for specific examples and links which can’t be referenced at the time. I was invited to give a talk last week at the first-ever NASA Information Technology Summit in Washington DC, and the topic I chose was “Government and the Revolution in Scientific Computing.” That’s an area that Microsoft Research has been focusing on quite a bit lately, so below I’ll give some examples I didn’t use at my talk.

One groundrule was that invited private-sector speakers were not allowed to give anything resembling a “sales pitch” of their company’s wares. Fair enough – I’m no salesman.  The person who immediately preceded me, keynoter Vint Cerf, slightly bent the rules and talked a bit about his employer Google’s products, but gee whiz, that’s the prerogative of someone who is in large part responsible for the Internet we all use and love today.

I described in my talk the radical new class of super-powerful technologies enabling large-data research and computing on platforms of real-time and archival government data. That revolution is happening now, and I believe government could and should be playing a different and less passive role. I advocated for increased attention to the ongoing predicament of U.S. research and development funding.

Alex Howard at O’Reilly Radar covered the NASA Summit and today published a nice review of both Vint’s talk and mine.  Some excerpts: Continue reading

Pre-release hands-on look at WP7

I try to avoid straight-up promotion for my employer on my blog too often (if you didn’t know, it’s that scrappy West-Coast-based startup Microsoft). I like sharing R&D projects, but for consumer products I leave that stuff to others or third-parties.

But with the Apple iPhone 4 controversy going on, and Google’s Droid platform chugging away, frankly I was surprised to see a long story on übergeek tech blog Engadget today about our Windows Phone 7, with a great video of a hands-on demo:

I’m sharing it because I eagerly await the launch for my own use. The review itself is worth a read – it has in-depth looks at the UI and UX, social-networking aspects, music integration (full-on Zune experience), app marketplace, search, maps, innovative photos, wireless cloud syncing, high-def video, elegant online/offline email innovation, Office integration, Xbox Live, and other facets. Some features are good, some missing, some are awesome. Launch coming this fall…

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Bing vs Google, the quiet semantic war

On Wednesday night I had dinner at a burger joint with four old friends; two work in the intelligence community today on top-secret programs, and two others are technologists in the private sector who have done IC work for years. The five of us share a particular interest besides good burgers: semantic technology.

Oh, we talked about mobile phones (iPhones were whipped out as was my Windows Phone, and apps debated) and cloud storage (they were stunned that Microsoft gives 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage with free Skydrive accounts, compared to the puny 2 gig they’d been using on DropBox).

But we kept returning to semantic web discussions, semantic approaches, semantic software. One of these guys goes back to the DAML days of DARPA fame, the guys on the government side are using semantic software operationally, and we all are firm believers in Our Glorious Semantic Future.

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Net-clever personal PSYOP targeting

In a way I’ve been studying Information Operations (info-ops, or IO) and Psychological Operations (PSYOP) all my life. We all have – particularly if you grew up in the marketing-saturated post-World War II United States. But I also started reading intently about those practices when I first worked at the Cold War Pentagon in the mid-1980s.

Those two terms have specific meanings in a military and international-relations context. The Pentagon’s official doctrinal definitions can be found in Joint Publication 3-13, “Information Operations” (updated in 2006) and in Joint Pub 3-53 “Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations” (dating back to 2003). They make plain that PSYOP is one of “five core IO capabilities: electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, operations security, and military deception.”  As the latter manual states, “The overall function of PSYOP is to cause selected foreign audiences to take actions favorable to the objectives of the United States and its allies or coalition partners” (page xii).

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Gunning the Microsoft Semantic Engine

New Bing Maps Beta with embedded data layers from Twitter and other social feeds, click to enlarge screenshot

There’s a lot of information on the Internet already. Every day, more is added – a lot more. And while there are a concomitant number of new analytic or sense-making tools on the web, they butt up against the fact that the data – the all-important data – is held in multiple places, formats, and platforms.

How are we going to deal with all this? One approach is almost mechanical: ensuring that datasets can be accessed commonly, as in our new Microsoft Dallas platform associated with the Windows Azure cloud platform.  In the government realm, the anticipated reliance on “government-as-a-platform” (a meme popularized by Tim O’Reilly) holds promise in allowing somewhat aggregated datasets, openly accessible.

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