A look at CWRU’s Hololens program: What is the future of mixed reality?


Courtesy of CWRU

Using Hololens 2 technology, CWRU’s Interactive Commons has been working to forge a promising educational future for students since the creation of the space in 2015.

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

When computers were first created, only academics, warmongers and managers of the most complicated industries had any use for them. But today, everyone in the developed world either owns or uses computers in some capacity. However, the explosive growth computers have had is far from common. For every invention that breaks into the public and reaches ubiquity, there are thousands more that are promising but ultimately fail to find an extensive purpose. Mixed reality technology is currently at that junction and Case Western Reserve University is spearheading it.

First and foremost, what even is mixed reality? Well, it’s a mix between virtual reality and augmented reality, hence the name. If virtual reality is being immersed into a movie or video game right in front of your eyes, and augmented reality is “Pokemon Go,” where graphics are overlaid with the real world, then mixed reality is “Pokemon Go” right in front of your eyes. In practice, mixed reality is a headset with glasses that projects interactive holograms. It allows you to observe and interact with immersive 3D representations of objects without having to learn how to use normal 3D modeling software. Currently, the leading mixed reality hardware—and the one used at CWRU—is the Microsoft Hololens 2.

To learn more about CWRU’s Hololens program, The Observer met with Erin Henninger, the executive director of CWRU’s Interactive Commons, which is a charming and cozy little space just between the Thwing and Tinkham Veale centers. The Interactive Commons is a relatively new space, having just replaced storage space in the Thwing basement in 2015, but it is now in full gear in its education innovation work.

Right now, the primary use is at the medical school, where students are using holograms of the human body. The students at CWRU’s medical school are no longer using textbooks and cadaver dissection as their only tools for learning human anatomy. While there is a debate in medical education about the extent to which cadaver dissection is necessary, the bulk of medical educators firmly believe that even if other methods are more effective in learning anatomy, cadaver dissections are still necessary, if only for the profound emotional lesson that medical students learn when they cut open a human body for the first time.

The staff at CWRU’s Interactive Commons are cognizant of this sentiment, and their messaging is clear that Hololens curriculum will not completely replace cadaver dissection, but rather replace the most tedious and time consuming portions, while supplementing the knowledge gained. After all, the nature of dissection is that a student can only see one layer at a time, while with a hologram they can view the entire body at once, hiding and showing features at their discretion.

However, medical students aren’t the only ones who get to try out the new tech. Anatomy is just the beginning of the Interactive Commons’ work with the Microsoft Hololens 2. “We had to spend a lot of time creating art specifically for anatomy, but we created it so that many could use the framework that we’re developing… you could dump out the anatomy and dump in engine parts,” Henninger said. The Interactive Commons is currently using this framework to develop new software for the Hololens 2 that takes advantage of its unique ability to show students immersive 3D models.

For fine arts students, mixed reality can create interactive models of pottery or other similar art, or even simulate an entire archeological site. And for those in STEM, 3D models are useful for things like understanding molecular structures or visualizing complex 3D situations in physics where forces and locations are difficult to depict on paper. The staff at the Interactive Commons are planning a demonstration of some of these programs near the end of the semester, so keep an eye out for that. In the coming years, undergraduate students can expect several class periods every semester to take place in the Kelvin Smith Library, where these programs will be used to supplement the rest of their course material.

More broadly, however, what is the future of mixed reality? CWRU is pioneering this technology, but being a pioneer only matters when organizations and individuals adopt it. A “smartphone scenario”—in which everyone has a mixed reality headset in their bag—is very unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. The limited battery life of about two to three hours makes consistent use impractical, and the prohibitive cost of $3,500 means that personal, everyday ownership is a long way off.

A more realistic possibility is the use of mixed reality within certain industries. There are some fields that could benefit massively from better visualization of 3D objects, such as construction, architecture or other engineering fields. However, use cases may be narrower than one might expect. For example, the purpose of an engineering drawing is not just to represent a creation accurately, but also to do so in a disposable manner, so a machinist can spill a bucket of cutting oil on a print or a construction worker can forget to weigh down site plans and have them fly off without significant consequence. Hardened professionals would probably also be very suspicious of the short battery life. However, this hasn’t stopped Microsoft from marketing Hololens-integrated construction hardhats for $5,200 each. There may very well come a day when companies collectively decide that mixed reality has a high enough return on investment to justify use.

However, the most likely scenario for the near future is other universities following in CWRU’s footsteps and integrating mixed reality into their curriculum. The nature of mixed reality lends itself to education very well: A 3D model’s simplest function is as a tool for understanding. It’s much more useful for people training to be experts than it is for the experts themselves, because the goal of educational mixed reality is for people to understand information conveyed by holograms so well that they don’t need to use the holograms again. However, at the end of the day, only time will tell how many colleges will be convinced that the advantages of mixed reality education make it worth adopting.

As for CWRU’s Interactive Commons, Hololens software probably won’t be the last thing you see from them. At the end of our interview, Henninger expressed optimism about the future of their work.

“We’re doing a lot of Hololens right now, because it’s the latest thing. But I think it’s important to think about it’s not just about this but the bigger project,” she said. “I hope that [readers] feel proud of what’s happening at [CWRU]…I hope if they’re interested, they can reach out to me to get involved so we can have more student workers, and so that we have the ability to help with student projects.”