HoloLens goes to work—but easier developer tools are needed


Several decades into the desktop PC revolution, there are more than 2 billion workers around the world who don’t have a desk. These field workers maintain much of the infrastructure that keeps our world working. Over the years, we’ve given them laptops, tablets, and smartphones, but they’re still missing much of the information support they need.

That’s because even with touch screens and pen input, computers are designed to be used by people who can give them their entire attention—and both hands. If you need to use your hands to adjust the mechanisms in a fuel pump, an aircraft engine, or a lift motor, there’s no way you can use a computer or tablet to access manuals or ask for help. Maybe you can work one-handed with a smartphone, but even that is iffy for many jobs.

What if these workers had a hands-free way of accessing that information? That’s what Microsoft wants to remake its Windows 10-based  and associated augmented reality technology for: providing computer power to workers who can’t pick up a computer. That’s a more refined mission for the 18-month-old HoloLens, which Microsoft originally envisaged used for everything from immersive gaming to computer-assisted field work to 3D modeling to “fly through”-style exploration of anything from the human body to the Milky Way galaxy.

Bringing computing to field work is hardly a new problem. In fact, it’s one the tech industry has tried to solve many times. Even I’ve had a go at it, as back in the early 1990s, while working at a UK telecoms research lab, I was part of a team that was bidding for Fourth Framework EU research funding. Working with an Apple research lab, a semiconductor company, and a European military aircraft manufacturer, we were planning to develop a handheld device to support engineers on the flight line. Our proposed hardware would have used a secure wireless network to deliver maintenance manuals, giving aircraft engineers access to the information they needed, when they needed it.