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A new holographic platform holds promise for enhancing education, research, and collaboration

Microsoft Hololens Development Edition

Microsoft Corporation
$3000

Most structures studied by science exist in three dimensions: molecules, organisms, ecosystems, galaxies. Flat-screen visualizations of these entities limit our understanding and experience of the objects and interactions that we study. Likewise, flat-screen-based video communication constrains our ability to interact with remote colleagues and collaborators. The Microsoft Hololens Development Edition, released on 30 March 2016, is a holographic platform that demonstrates the potential to enhance scientific understanding, education, and collaboration by transforming our interactions with three-dimensional representations and with one another.

Users of Hololens see and hear the augmented world through a visor, with holographic images and applications superimposed on their surroundings and high-definition sound projected above their ears. The gaze of the user, combined with gestures, voice commands, or a handheld clicker, allow him or her to rotate, resize, or reposition holograms.

Through surface mapping, Hololens avoids placing images in obstructed positions and generates an experience that is contextualized to the user’s location. For example, browser-based applications appear as if they are attached to a wall. Unlike Google Glass or Oculus, Hololens is untethered; it accesses the Internet through Wi-Fi.

As a Windows 10 device, Hololens is integrated with Cortana, Microsoft’s response to Apple’s Siri. Speaking the command, “Hey, Cortana, display the periodic table of elements” invokes an Edge browser with an appropriate display floating in the user’s view. Images and video captured by Hololens are stored to OneDrive, where they can then be viewed or downloaded.

The development edition of Hololens provides access to a set of early applications in the Windows Store. Although many are recreational, some demonstrate the scientific and educational potential of the device. For example, the preview version of an anatomy trainer developed by Case Western Reserve University projects a semitransparent human body. As the user works through examples, organ systems are highlighted. The user can walk around the body to learn the position of organs.

Holographic images can be rotated, resized, or repositioned by a user's gaze, gestures, voice commands, or a handheld remote.USED WITH PERMISSION FROM MICROSOFT.

Holographic images can be rotated, resized, or repositioned by a user’s gaze, gestures, voice commands, or a handheld remote.

Another application, Galaxy Explorer, allows users to visualize astronomical structures. Through finger gestures, they can zoom in on features of a three-dimensional, semitransparent depiction of the Milky Way galaxy, including individual planets.

Small molecule structures can be imported into the free HoloStudio application. We have successfully used this approach to visualize aspirin. Importing more complex structures requires migrating the visualization through the Unity game engine platform and then Microsoft Visual Studio. I used this process to transfer the human leukocyte antigen molecule with the peptide-binding cleft emphasized and was able to view the molecule floating in our office suite. This has potential to improve our understanding of molecular docking, including drug-protein interactions.

Skype is integrated with Hololens and offers novel collaboration capabilities. Hololens wearers see the person that they are conversing with off to the side of their field of vision, while those on the call see the view from the visor. The wearer can walk around and annotate objects, seeking guidance and feedback from remote participants. One constraint is that holographic images are currently not visible during a Skype session.

There are several minor issues that I hope will be addressed before the device’s full release. For example, the rectangular portion of the view dedicated to holograms does not cover the entire field of vision. Images must be carefully sized to fit.

Hololens is a more obvious device than Google Glass, so the privacy concerns associated with surreptitious recording are less important. However, this issue is still worthy of continued consideration, especially if future releases have a smaller format.

Three-dimensional thinking and communication are critical during this era of increasingly complex data. Hololens has the potential to transform scientific thinking, analysis, and communication by seamlessly integrating the virtual and the physical world.

About the author

The reviewer is at Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO 64108, USA.