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Hands-on with the HoloLens

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At the Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco last week, the company finally allowed developers to get their hands on its new holographic viewing device, the HoloLens. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tried it out.

A ball of scrunched-up newspaper lies on a desk alongside colourful, triangular objects. I raise a finger in the air, and make a tapping motion on the ball. It rolls off the desk with a rustling noise. As it hits the ground, it suddenly explodes amid a cloud of smoke.

When the smoke clears, it reveals a gaping hole in the floor. Inside the hole, a cavernous green world appears. As I move around the edges of the hole, the view shifts to reveal layer upon layer of vague subterranean constructions. Red paper planes float about in the “sky” below like birds.

I speak a command: “Reset world”.

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Instantly, the floor is back to its normal state of being, well, a floor. The ball of newspaper is back on the desk. I walk round the ball, examine it from each side, and from above and below. It is completely intact.

I pull the visor off my head, and the ball and desk disappear. I cautiously step on the carpet where the hole had appeared. Completely solid.

The scene that had just played itself out had been made possible by a new device called the Microsoft HoloLens. It is essentially a hologram viewer, but is also somewhat more. It is the first system that makes it possible to view holograms through a viewer that is not dependent on wires, connection to a computer or external cameras.

Unlike virtual reality viewers, like Samsung’s Gear VR, the HoloLens allows virtual images to be overlaid on the real world.  The concept is termed “mixed reality” and, unlike augmented reality, allows the user to interact with the image. It could, for example, be an application like a calendar hovering in mid-air, and allowing the user to click on an appointment to expand the entry.

Applications for the HoloLens are built on a new platform called Windows Holographic, which allows developers to import applications and scripts, integrating images and commands into the user experience. As long as a program has been created as a universal Windows application – a standard application built to function across all Windows devices, like notebooks, tablets and smartphones – it can be imported directly into Windows Holographic.

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The HoloLens was first announced in January, and formally unveiled to developers at Microsoft’s Build 2015 conference in San Francisco last week. During the conference, Microsoft ran a Holographic Academy, a four-hour deep dive course for developers wanting to learn how to build applications and experiences for the HoloLens. A 90-minute version offered a comprehensive introduction to the platform, allowing non-coders – including this writer – to get a detailed idea of what goes into building a holographic application.

At heart, the process is designed to locate a virtual object in the physical world, and to enable control via gaze – visual focus is key to pinpointing where an action will be executed – gesture and voice.

With gesture control, Microsoft has introduced a new gesture, simply comprising holding a finger in the air and simulating a tap on a keyboard – except it takes place in mid-air, executing an action represented by the spot where the gaze is focused. Voice can also be used to execute such commands, as well as to reset the scene, should the user get lost in the process.

The end result is magical. For a developer, the experience of making an object or application come to “reality” in mid-air is like seeing a new world for the first time. For the user, it is mesmerising to be able to stroll in and out of a virtual scene or application.

And this is no mere frivolous entertainment concept. It has massive implications for health and education.

During an opening keynote presentation at Build, the audience was treated to some of the dramatic, yet down-to-earth possibilities: A medical lecturer walking around a high-definition hologram of a heart, explaining its functioning; a paleontologist exploring a dinosaur skull; an architect demonstrating bridge construction.

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That’s even before we get to the more visionary uses, like controlling the Mars Rover as if one is standing alongside it on the surface of the red planet; directing a virtual robot through a hazardous environment.

In one demonstration, a plain room is transformed as a virtual screen is placed on one wall and begins to run a movie; virtual furniture appears; and a live weather forecast from a standard weather app floats in mid-air.

Of course, the objects only exist while viewed through the HoloLens. Voice- and gesture-recognition allows only the viewer to interact wit the scene. In future versions, however, it is likely that multiple users will be able to interact jointly with a specific hologram. During the hands-on session, trainers refused to be drawn on the possibility, saying only that they are not yet talking about such functions.

Commercial release of the HoloLens is not yet scheduled and pricing strategy is still to be formulated.

Microsoft clearly wants to avoid the Google Glass debacle: the search giant had created massive expectations with its eye-level computer, but was blind-sided by and equally massive consumer and social backlash. It eventually pulled the plug on the project, and has gone back to the drawing board.

The HoloLens is a far larger and more overt gadget than Google Glass, but therein lies its greater appeal: it is very obviously a viewing device for specific purposes, and is not attempting to hide itself as a “wearable” like glasses.

The real key, of course, is whether people will find it more useful and more compelling to interact with a 3D hologram rather than a flat image on a screen. The fact that 3D movies have so far failed to convert a mass market that prefers movies flat on a screen, should provide an early caution against getting too excited about holograms.

However, if it can go beyond gimmicks like exploding floors and obvious educational applications, it may well bring new magic to the world of information and entertainment.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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AppDate: Reserve Bank to choose fintech winner

This week, SEAN BACHER highlights the Global Fintech Hackcelerator, Fortnite’s skin for the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, Standard Bank and iiDENTIFii’s partnership, WRAPP and Zulzi’s latest expansion.

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Image by Andre Gunawan: Tech in Asia - https://www.techinasia.com

SARB to choose Global Fintech Hackcelerator winner

The South African Reserve Bank will host a Fintech Demo Day on 29 October 2019 to select two winners from 12 innovative and sustainable fintech solutions shortlisted for the Global Fintech Hackcelerator @ Southern Africa.

In August, SARB joined forces with KPMG Matchi to run the 2019 Global Fintech Hackcelerator @ Southern Africa, an acceleration programme that creates a platform for fintech firms to demonstrate their innovative solutions to complex financial challenges in the Southern African region. Fintech firms from all over the world were invited to submit an application in response to problem statements constructed in collaboration with SARB. 

The regional hackcelerator received 95 entries from interested fintech firms located across the globe.  The 12 shortlisted respondents will showcase their solutions at the Fintech Demo Day at the end of this month in Johannesburg. 

Each Global Fintech Hackcelerator @ Southern Africa 2019 winner will receive the following:

  • A stipend towards travel expenses to attend the 2019 Singapore Fintech Festival
  • An opportunity to pitch their solution live during the Hackcelerator Demo Day at the 2019 Singapore Fintech Festival and engage with industry experts
  • Funding to develop a contextualised proof of concept, to be deployed within a year from the demo day
  • An opportunity to work with high-value corporates to contextualise a solution to their needs, while obtaining market entry into the Singapore and Asia-Pacific region.

The top three winners at the Singapore Fintech Festival will each receive a cash prize.

For more information on the Global Fintech Hackcelerator click here.

Click here to read about a Fortnite exclusive for Samsung Galaxy Note 10 users, and Standard Bank’s new way of identifying its customers.

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PC market grows again

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Worldwide shipments of traditional PCs, comprised of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, reached 70.4 million units in the third quarter of 2019 (3Q19), according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDCWorldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. Demand in the commercial segment combined with trade tensions between the United States and China to drive the market forward, resulting in a second consecutive quarter of growth with shipments increasing by 3% over the third quarter of 2018.

Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers, says: “With higher tariffs on the horizon PC makers once again began to push additional inventory during the quarter though the process was a bit more difficult as many faced supply constraints from Intel, leaving AMD with more room to grow. The trade tensions are also leading to changes in the supply chain as most notebook manufacturers are now prepared to move production to other countries in Asia, such as Taiwan and Vietnam.”

“Commercial demand should accelerate as enterprises work through the remainder of their Windows 10 migration,” says Linn Huang, research vice president, Devices & Displays. “The number of months until the end of service (EOS) date of Windows 7 can be counted on one hand. With January 14, 2020 drawing nigh, the commercial market should be able to digest the extra inventory over the next several quarters. Supply constraints may loom in subsequent quarters, so excess may not be a bad position for channel inventory through the remainder of the year.”

Regional Highlights

Traditional PC shipments in Asia/Pacific (excluding Japan) posted a year-over-year decline but the market performed above expectations. Back-to-school demand drove the consumer market in China, while online sales and preparations for the Diwali festive season supported consumer shipments in India, as two of the largest countries in the region surpassed the previous forecast. Meanwhile, the commercial market in China recorded a decline in line with expectations, impacted by macroeconomic pressures.

Coming in slightly above forecast, the Canadian traditional PC market delivered its 13th consecutive quarter of growth. The market is becoming increasingly solidified as the top 5 vendors now capture more than 85% of all shipments.

In Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), the traditional PC market achieved stable growth in 3Q19 with both desktops and notebooks performing relatively well. A strong pipeline of deals ahead of the ongoing Windows 10 transition continued to translate into commercial strength, offsetting the softness in the consumer market and the overall negative impact of the component shortage.

In Japan, both the commercial and consumer markets largely outperformed forecast, driven by Windows 10 migration and the consumption tax increase respectively. Commercial shipments established a new third quarter record beating the mark set in 2013 when Windows XP EOS created similar momentum in the commercial PC market.

The traditional PC market in Latin America was very much in line with previous expectations of a 4.1% year-over-year decline. During this period desktop shipments were better than expected mainly due to the large enterprise segment and verticals such as banking, retail, and manufacturing. Notebook shipments also declined during the quarter due to a weak consumer market and delays in some education deals.

The United States saw low single-digit growth in the third quarter with both desktop and notebooks seeing continued year-over-year growth. Inventory pull-in continued to be supported by Windows 7 EOS and continued tensions in the trade war. As most List 4 tariffs have been delayed until the end of the year, inventory pull-in overall was slightly weaker compared to the previous quarter. According to a recent survey among IT decision makers in the USA, more than 60% of businesses have transitioned their Windows-deployed PCs from Windows 7 to Windows 10. Another 13% plan to do so by the Windows EOS date in January 2020.

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