This month marks the beginning of the initial developer rollout of HoloLens, which I consider to be the first device that moves beyond augmented reality and virtual reality to altered reality. While there has been a lot of focus on gaming, the initial opportunity for this technology is mostly in commercial deployments. With applications ranging from modeling, architecture, space planning, emulation and telepresence, this product could massively improve and disrupt how industries operate. However, one area that I don’t think folks are thinking of for HoloLens is video conferencing.
I’ve been following video conferencing since it was first showcased in the 1960s. I was part of the big trials that failed in the 1980s and formally followed it since the mid-90s. The one sustaining problem with all of the technologies is that the attendees just don’t get the same interaction or experience that they’d get if they were physically there. So rather than being the default method for meetings, video conferencing is still, after decades of advancement, used mostly when you simply don’t have the time or budget to fly folks to the same physical location.
In short, despite all the cost savings, time savings and health advantages (folks catch stuff on airplanes and when in group meetings), we still mostly ignore video conferencing as an option. I think HoloLens could change that.
What HoloLens potentially supplies is the ability to feel like you are actually at an event. So rather than looking at a screen showing a view from a camera at the site, you’d have a view as if you were sitting in the audience at the table. With multiple cameras, you could look around and even move around the rendered room. If you set up identical conference rooms at various locations, it would appear like the speaker were in your conference room, and when it was your turn to speak, you would appear in theirs.
An alternative would be to have a room with a tablet that was consistent with the part of the conference table where the attendee would be sitting if they were present. When the HoloLens was activated, the attendee would see the rest of the table and could look around at the other attendees. Granted, everyone would be wearing glasses, and you’d need cameras in the remote rooms and at the conference location to complete the experience.
The user could still look down at their laptop or notes and read them, but this image could be blocked from the other remote users, creating a level of individual security you couldn’t get if you were actually at the event. The positioning sensors in the HoloLens would know where the attendee was looking, so side conversations could occur at the table. But, once again, unlike an actual event, the related sound could be restricted to the folks actually in the conversation, and these side conversations could be across the table, from one end of the table to the other, and really would have nothing to do with proximity. You could simply automatically connect to the other attendee you were looking at and open a conversation link that the speaker and other parties at the table couldn't hear unless you wanted them to. You could actually have break-out discussions without anyone having to leave the table.
Another interesting thing that could be done is that the speakers could be canned. In other words, the presentation could be pre-taped, but any questions could be shot to the speaker, who was attending virtually, and could respond in text or jump in with a clarification as needed. They could also restrict this experience to only the person or persons who wanted to hear that answer.
Fully implemented, you’d have most of the advantages of being at the event, the advantages of not having to travel, the advantages of a canned event and the advantages of having the speaker live—all in one package. And, overall, this would both be better than any video conferencing setup currently in existence and actually have some real productivity advantages over actually being here.
If you were then to tie the headsets into telepresence robots, you could actually have some of the physical freedom of being at the remote location, as well, though clearly not some of the vacation advantages of a true boondoggle.
This is a long way of really getting to my main point, which isn’t HoloLens for video conferencing but the fact that it will likely take us years to fully flesh out all of the business opportunities that HoloLens represents. Once you have the capability to alter reality, things we have attributed historically to magic become possible. That is so different from what we are used to that seeing the true potential for change will take a while.
Once you can take control over what people hear and see and blend what is actually there seamlessly with what isn’t, you can rethink everything from Windows to decorations and provide a level of customization across a broad spectrum of services. But, I think, some blend of HoloLens and on-site cameras coupled with a cloud conferencing service could do what no one yet has been able to do, and that is to make video conferencing better than actually being there.
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