Envisioning Holograms

M. Pell’s new book examines techniques for visualizing next-generation mixed-reality experiences.

One might imagine that full-length books on emerging technologies would be scarce; print is inevitably slow, and in the time it takes to assemble hundreds of pages of writing, dozens of iterations of new technologies come and go and become obsolete. Still, technical publishers rush to market, trying valiantly to capitalize on tech trends.

Case in point: dozens of new books are tackling the topic of Augmented Reality, most of them focusing on software development. I was intrigued by a few outliers that promised a more thoughtful, theoretical approach. Here’s a look at one such book, which focuses on brainstorming and visualizing augmented reality concepts.

Envisioning Holograms offers to help readers “design breakthrough experiences for mixed reality.” Early in the book, the author explains his nomenclature choice; by “mixed reality,” he’s referring to the placement of 3D content into real-world environments, as opposed to the more typical 2D overlays of augmented reality. Indeed, the bulk of the author’s examples involve inserting imaginary, cinematic creatures into public settings. It’s interesting that Pell’s terminology differs from Microsoft’s, since he’s currently Principal Designer at the Microsoft Garage – a detail which was one of my primary motivators for purchasing the book.

The book begins with a cursory overview of available technologies, and identifies itself as technology-neutral. From here on in, the book doesn’t go into detail about any of the features and limitations of today’s available technologies; instead, it aims to be speculative, and help us envision ideas for holograms that might become feasible in the future. This was my first indication that the book might not be terribly useful….

After the introductory chapters, the focus turns to the titular “envisioning.” It might be more accurate to say that the book is about documenting and presenting ideas for holograms. It breaks down, and revisits, modes of presentation ranging from acting to PowerPoint to prototyping. If you are interested in building holographic experiences and your biggest challenge is deciding whether to build your concept sketches in PhotoShop or PowerPoint, this could be helpful… but I suspect you may have more pressing challenges.

There’s a chapter devoted to “Breakthrough Experiences,” which provides examples of holographic concepts for broadcast, art, and entertainment, none of which are supported by actual case studies – these are just some ideas the author has thought about – and aren’t they cool?! Were it not for his Microsoft credentials, I would wonder whether the author had any experience building actual holographic applications.

The final section of the book focuses on three hypothetical projects – holographic dinosaurs, immersive data visualizations, and an augmented art gallery – and tracks some approaches to presenting these. I held out a little hope for this part of the book, since the preceding pages were so maddeningly vague, but there wasn’t much more to be gleaned here, despite the increased specificity.

As a book on ideation and the creative process, it’s very generic. The author’s central tip for generating ideas is not bad – to photograph empty spaces and brainstorm what might appear within them. Beyond that, the directive seems to be “use your imagination.” The book contrasts “Fast Design,” the author’s preferred creative process, with agile methodologies, but never clearly defines it or differentiates the two.

As a book on visualization, it’s similarly underbaked. There are a few recommendations about differentiating places, humans, and holograms, but the techniques described will be obvious those who’ve used design software and baffling to those who haven’t. When I’m visualizing any kind of digital or environmental experience, understanding why I’m doing it – and who I’m doing it for – is paramount. The absence of this real-world context is confusing – once the reader has visualized her ideas for holograms, what comes next?

There’s a real missed opportunity here to explore the hows and whys of designing Mixed Reality experiences – understanding user perspectives, interaction mechanisms, and best practices to leverage the power of the medium. Fortunately, Microsoft has fantastic Design Guidance resources online that cover these in detail (though of course these are platform-specific).

Ultimately, the book seems to have an audience issue. Anyone with experience in design, storytelling, or technology will find the techniques presented here incredibly basic. But if you’ve never designed, written, or coded before, and you want to make holograms without learning any of these skills, this may be the book you’ve been looking for.

To summarize: Envisioning Holograms, much like its subject matter, is a bit hollow.

Envisioning Holograms:
Designing Breakthrough Experiences for Mixed Reality

by M. Pell
317 pages. Apress, 2017

One thought on “Envisioning Holograms

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.