Last year when I tried the HoloLens for the first time, one app impressed me more than all the others – a virtual tour guide app that allowed the user to visit Rome as if they were actually there. At the time it had only two scenes, but walking around outside the Pantheon I really got a sense of scale and what it was like to be there. It was true environmental presence, in a HoloLens app. A HoloLens app that behaved more like a VR app.
Months passed into a year and I kept looking for news and announcements on the app. Footage was released for things like Skype, the Case Western anatomy app and even Minecraft, but the tour guide app never surfaced… until last night.
In what seems to be an amazing cosmic coincidence, Microsoft released HoloTour at the same time Carl Callewaert from Unity was giving a talk on architecture and presence in VR. A talk that included, of course, the Pantheon.
In fact the whole time Carl was giving his talk about the design of the Pantheon dome, I was thinking about the app I’d seen a year ago and my virtual visit there. It was an unbelievably strange experience less than an hour after Carls talk to be walking around the streets of Rome and seeing the Pantheon dome up close again.
HoloTour has really grown up since I first saw its prototype more than a year ago. There are now at least 5 scenes in Rome and about as many in Peru.
Probably the most exciting part is that it looks like they’ve made the experience extensible so they can add more cities and buildings over time. There’s even a passport book to track your progress and let you leave feedback for the HoloTour developers.
My favorite part of the updated experience has to be the hot air balloon. You can really sense for how big the city is and you get a wealth of information from the guide at that vantage point.
Of course the most unexpected part about HoloTour for most folks will be that it’s more of a VR experience than a traditional MR (mixed reality) experience. This is the first HoloLens app I know of that tries to replace the world rather than integrate with it. And I know a lot of people are going to ask “How well does it work?” and “Are the holograms dense enough to block out the real world?”. Personally I think it works very very well. Shockingly well.
Here is the mixed reality capture of HoloTour taken by saying “Hey Cortana, take a picture”:
And here is a similar shot taken by putting my phone up to the eyepiece of the HoloLens:
Now granted this was taken in the evening, but I did have all of the lights on in the room. And to be quite honest, the photo above doesn’t at all do justice in capturing the richness of the experience. The actual experience is far more engaging and immersive than what I could capture in a photo.
In fact I turned the HoloLens over to my parents tonight who have both been to Rome, and I couldn’t get it out of their hands for almost two hours as they passed it back and forth and reminisced over the places they’d visited and the memories they’d shared. When they were finally done my mom returned the HoloLens and said “I went back to Rome tonight, and I didn’t even have to leave my living room”. That sounds like a pretty good endorsement to me.