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Tuesday, 15 December 2015

HoloLens, Hacking Mars, and Microsoft!

Hello! Today's blog post looks at my trip to Microsoft, all thanks to winning the Hacking Mars contest! Along with some amazing prizes, the three members of my team were flown to Seattle to tour Microsoft, check out the HoloLens, and more! Let's go!

This entire experience was immensely exciting! It was luxurious to be flown to Seattle, put up in a nice hotel room, given spending money, and chauffeured around. This set the stage for the day at Microsoft. Not only did I feel more confident about myself, and the accomplishment of the team winning the contest, but I was impressed by the effort Microsoft was making. Sure, if any company could afford to put in the extra effort, Microsoft could, but I saw a level of enthusiasm surpassing simple capital ability.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Sarah Morris, Senior Design Strategist for Microsoft's Activation team, who had coordinated and handled many of the details of the Hacking Mars contest. All along this journey, which started from project submission, through several dozens emails, up to and including the tour, Sarah was exceptionally enthusiastic, thorough, and accommodating. She had worked hard to ensure that we would have a great time at Microsoft and she succeeded. We have all thanked her numerous times, but I will just mention that her effort was extremely appreciated and really made quite the impression. 

Along with Sarah, we were joined by Jessie Kawata, Creative Strategist at NASA JPL. She was one of the judges of the contest, and it was her first time at Microsoft as well! Jessie's experiences with NASA were interesting to hear, as she worked under a different design perspective than many of her NASA colleagues. As a creative strategist, Jessie and her team are responsible for early mission architecture studies, creating strategies for new Earth and planetary spacecraft mission concepts, and leading human-centred design initiatives. She and her team had worked on the NASA-Microsoft connection via the HoloLens, and how HoloLens could be beneficial for astronaut operations and training.

Our first part of the tour included breakfast in a well-equipped area with several chefs, free beverages, and aspects like employee-grown lettuce. Microsoft is working to improve its sustainability and positive impact on the environment and growing their own lettuce is just one small, symbolic part. 

After breakfast, we toured through the Xbox building. The main hall was full of interesting sights including Minecraft versions of Halo's Master Chief, and large-scale statues of the Halo: Reach team, as seen below.

We of course paused for a team photo of our own, seen here and below!

Making our way down the hall, we entered a conference room and met several developers of the HoloLens! Now, almost all details of the HoloLens are impressive and, as such, it should come as no surprise that, most of the details are secret.

However, by watching this video, and checking out this website, you should be able to understand why the HoloLens is so exciting!

The HoloLens is basically a Windows 10 computer, combined with sensors and 3D optical display, all placed within a head-mounted display unit. It wirelessly sits comfortably on your head, allowing you to overlay holographic images onto your vision. It is not virtual reality, as that implies seeing only a virtual world, like looking at a video game. HoloLens is augmented reality, as the holograms are placed on top of, and alongside, reality.

The meeting with the developers allowed us to explore some of the features and design choices of HoloLens. After doing my own research, including the links above, I had many questions and ideas, and was happy to see that the developers took my ideas seriously.

I think HoloLens is an exciting device as it pushes our capabilities. Smartphones, tablets, and personal computers already allow us to create more and greater things, connecting us, and empowering us. One perspective of HoloLens is that it allows a natural extension of this. Now, your computer screen can be expanded, allowing your very walls to become your workspace. Ideas you have can now be created, projected, and interacted with in 3 dimensions. 

Consider the father and daughter in this video. She seems to have a plumbing problem and is Skyping with her father. She is wearing the HoloLens, viewing the Skype call as a hologram on one wall, and looking at the plumbing. Her father is viewing, on his tablet, whatever she looks at while wearing the device. He advises her to tighten specific locations, which he marks by touching his tablet screen. The daughter, sees holographic arrows appear in the exact places that her father intended, allowing her to fix the problem!

I think this is amazing! This is the stuff of science fiction, only now it is fact, it is possible! It seems so simple, yet it allows for an incredible diversity of capability! Video games, 3D modelling, communication, interior design, recreation, and remote assistance, all can be improved with HoloLens!

As I mentioned earlier, NASA and Microsoft have been working together with the HoloLens. On the same day as we were touring Microsoft, astronauts onboard the International Space Station were trying out the HoloLens. As astronaut Scott Kelly says, the HoloLens could allow astronauts to view operations and procedures in a more hands-free way, as well as allow experts on the ground to advise them on repairs. 

As part of winning the Hacking Mars contest, our team was given the chance to try the HoloLens for ourselves! I cannot tell you much about the technical details, but the experience was truly impressive. In one simulation, meant to be more like a game, the holograms looked obviously not real, however they also appeared to really be in the room with me. The control scheme was easy, intuitive, and it was fun, being surrounded by holograms. 

The second experience was mind-bogglingly amazing! As part of a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft, they have developed the Onsight experience. Using imagery taken from the surface of Mars, and combining it with HoloLens technology, one is able to view the surface of Mars as if they were standing there!

Let that sink in for a moment.

No human has ever been there. The photos we have now, are truly impressive, but just photos.

However, the HoloLens is able to create a landscape that looks as real to me as any real vista, and I am able to walk around and explore it.

What an exceptional time we live in!

I have studied Mars, quite extensively. My earliest reading of the Red Planet included science fiction and books about planets. I have done research projects related to Mars, designed astronaut missions and habitats, rovers, and instrumentation meant to study the planet surface. But now, with HoloLens, I was able to feel like I was there!

It was incredible. It was also funny because while the coordinator of this experience was telling me about HoloLens, I was telling her about Mars, what details I noticed, and some interesting facts. I wish I could go into more details concerning this experience, but I cannot. All I can tell you is that it was the closest I have, or likely will ever come, to standing on Mars. This is not pessimism, this is tremendous fact. Even should humanity walk on its surface tomorrow, it will take a long time to make the process smooth, easy, and reliable. I will not make the trip until then, and it would likely take a very long time to develop. So, it was amazing to feel truly connected to a planet that has inspired me, and been part of my experience, for so long.

What more can I say after that? The rest of the day was highly enjoyable and interesting. 

We toured the Microsoft visitor's center, where Matt stood in with the company's founders:

We met a talking robot that helped us find our way to a research lab:

The research lab included work on wearable technology, meant to be stylish as well as functional (more information here):

And even met a talking tree, Florence. 

The designer had been researching the electrical signals plants create when exposed to certain stimuli (light, mostly). She had connected sensors to the plant to read these signals, and was trying to understand them. When you typed in a question or statement on one screen, a series of flashes were emitted at the plant, and the plant's response (electrical signals), were interpreted and printed out using software meant to build a language. It was an interesting idea, highly amusing, and still a work in progress.

Then we rounded off the tour by having a few more interesting meetings and conversations, posing with Mark Watney's helmet from The Martian, and had a Vietnamese-fusion dinner with other HoloLens designers and developers.

This experience has inspired me, breathed new life into my ambitions. Life has been great, but not being where I want to be, i.e. working in the space industry in Europe, has been emotionally exhausting. However, this tour, this experience, has allowed me to feel motivated, excited to create, build, and share ideas! I feel energized and am going to use this momentum to push harder than ever before!

I feel like I am qualified, and even meant, to work in my field and do great things. I am excited about what the future brings and I look forward to pushing the boundaries on what we can accomplish, together.

Thanks for reading, I hope you had fun!

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