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Finland’s new tech hub hasn’t been built yet, but that’s not stopping HoloLens from taking people there

Peter Vesterbacka, the man who helped to send Angry Birds soaring, is setting his sights higher still.

The former chief marketing officer of Rovio, the Finnish company behind the internationally successful videogame, now has plans to found a new city in Finland.

By Vesterbacka’s own description, Otakeila (also known as Slushpolis) will offer 150,000 square feet of start-up space. Situated in the greater Helsinki area, between the Aalto University campus and the Kailaranta shoreline, he boasts that it will one day be home to “the highest concentration of start-ups on the planet”.

That remains to be seen. But hyperbole aside, there is a lot of work to do if entrepreneurs, investors and tech companies are to be persuaded that Slushpolis is the best place for them to base their business, given the stiff competition from technology hubs across the world.

When Vesterbecka was mulling over this problem with his friend Mika Peltola, the co-founder of Helsinki-based creative agency Deeptale, Peltola came up with a cutting-edge solution: why not use Microsoft’s HoloLens to take would-be Slushpolis occupants on a dazzling, mixed-reality tour of the planned city and its amenities?

Life through the lens
Deeptale spent the next three months designing an experience that used HoloLens to place holograms into the real world, making participants feel as if they really were in Slushpolis.

In the first stage of the adventure, participants wearing the HoloLens headset see Slushpolis highlighted on a holographic map of the globe, as three airplanes make their final approach to the city. A voiceover points out how easily Helsinki can be reached from Europe, Asia, and even countries in the Western Hemisphere.

In the next stage, they see the city laid out before them on a table, in a similar style to a traditional architect’s model. Walking around the table, the HoloLens wearer is presented with animations that flag up various city features and attractions.

They’re then transported to the interior of a Slushpolis flat, on the top floor of the highest building. Experiencing the space as if they were physically there, they are then treated to some amazing views across the virtual city.

Finally, participants return to the table-based city model. Using hand gestures to select hotspots – such as a Slushpolis rooftop or a shoreline, they can them ‘visit’ them and experience them virtually, in person.

HoloLens makes up the very heart of this experience, but it also wouldn’t be possible without architectural plans created in SketchUp, the 3D modelling application from software company Trimble, and the Unity real-time game engine.

Unity is a software framework most commonly used by creators of videogames to render 2D or 3D designs into movie-like scenes, who then add sound, scripting, materials, lighting, animation and more. Increasingly, products like Unity also offer a powerful way for companies that design and market buildings to bring plans to life in architectural software packages.

This is crucial, because most people struggle to visualise architectural concepts, as it’s difficult to know what a building or city might look and feel like from simply viewing floor plans, illustrations or scale models. HoloLens allows people to experience the building as if it had already been built, showing them the impact of lighting in a room at different times of the day, or alternative views from mezzanine floors, for example.

For these reasons, there’s a real buzz around HoloLens in the architecture, engineering, construction and operations industries. In the architectural sector, designers can quickly create prototypes, evaluate options and convey their thinking to clients. For building owners and estate agents, it provides a highly effective way of marketing properties to would-be occupants.

The biggest problem for an architect is getting from the screen into the physical space – Greg Lynn, professor of architecture design at the UCLA school of the Arts and Architecture

Last year, Greg Lynn, whose architectural firm Gregg Lynn FORM was selected to represent the US at the 2016 Venice Biennale – a contemporary arts exhibition – used HoloLens and software from Trimble to show how he would transform a huge, abandoned Packard car factory in Detroit into the Center for Fulfillment, Knowledge and Innovation – a transport hub, industrial park, factory and university.

On a smaller scale, US hardware chain Lowe’s is using HoloLens in select stores to help DIY enthusiasts reimagine their kitchens, using mixed-reality to “see” how different combinations of kitchen cabinetry, countertops and appliances work together.

Since the Slushpolis Story launched last year, Peltola has had the chance to introduce more people to HoloLens and the mixed-reality experience, most recently at MPIM 2017, a premier real estate conference held in Cannes in March.

Attendees were drawn to his exhibition stand simply by the sight of other attendees wearing HoloLens, he said. But it’s only when they put on the device themselves that they start to realise its full potential.

“Their reaction? It’s often real delight, as well as surprise that technology is so advanced now, because the experience that they have seems so real to them,” he says.

It can also be a very social encounter, since multiple participants all wearing a HoloLens can take the journey together, seeing each other and chatting throughout. “It’s a shared journey, not one you undertake in a solitary or isolated way. We often find that participants will discover for themselves a particular feature of the journey and then point it out to others, for example.”

“I really think mixed reality is going to be revolutionary, because it provides a way to show people things that might otherwise remain hidden to them. That, in itself, is extremely powerful.”