Microsoft caused a stir last week during the launch of Windows 10. The company unexpectedly announced a holographic smart glass called HoloLens, which will be launched in conjunction with Windows 10, later in 2015.
Interestingly, Microsoft calls their new product the world’s first holographic computing platform, rather than an augmented reality (AR) platform. It’s clever marketing from Microsoft, which is trying hard to score points against Google and Apple on the innovation tally. In the same week HoloLens was announced, Google officially announced that they are shutting down the Glass Explorer program, but are going to reposition the Glass team within Tony Fadell’s hardware team at Google that is responsible for Nest.
I haven’t had a chance to try the HoloLens, but reading through some of the hands-on experiences, it looks like a compelling device. It is clear that Microsoft has spent a lot of time creating experiences and scenarios for the HoloLens, working closely with developers like NASA to create some compelling initial applications. In contrast with Google’s approach with Glass, they were wise not to launch a prototype to the public.
Here are some of my key takeaways:
- HoloLens is a prototype, so let’s not get carried away. There is a difference between a prototype and the finished product. Even if the experience was extraordinary, it will take a few years before this product is ready for mainstream consumer adoption, and at a compelling price point. There is a reason why Oculus has yet to release a commercial virtual reality headset, more than 2 years after releasing it to developers. For anyone that has tried Oculus, we can’t wait to get our hands on it, but there is a difference between a product working in a controlled setting versus out in the wild.
- This is not Google Glass. Glass was simply a notification device on your eye, with hardly any augmented reality features. HoloLens takes AR beyond of state of the art into holograms, so it sets the bar much higher than Glass. There is no camera attached to it and it’s not a recording device. Its primary use is indoors, so the social awkwardness of Glass isn’t there.
- There is some value in seeing HoloLens as the next computing platform, beginning with the enterprise. I can certainly see it replacing the two-dimensional screen that we all stare into at the workplace. Microsoft’s biggest near-term opportunity is to port enterprise tools like Office and Skype into the HoloLens platform. We have already seen Skype being integrated, and next up could be Microsoft Office, possibly Office 365. It will certainly enhance productivity in the workplace and be more ergonomic than conventional interfaces. I expect to see large corporate customers signing up for trials in 2016-17, before it launches to the general public.
- There are huge opportunities and clear use cases in specific verticals like education, medical, architecture, engineering, aerospace, design, and possibly even art. Any area where you need to interact with physical objects or workspaces will see a direct benefit from AR and holographic interfaces.
- At home, I see HoloLens being more of an entertainment and gaming device. But experiences should ideally be built around multi-user interactions, with families playing the same game or interacting with the same holographic object. This is much more complex to create and will need time to perfect. Microsoft is in a good position with Xbox Live for the multiplayer experience, but working with holograms is completely different from designing a game for Xbox. In fact, I see game developers flocking more towards Oculus, as the environments are fully virtual, similar to what they are already accustomed to in today’s games.
We are now entering an era where we will be torn between three realities – the real world, augmented reality, and virtual reality. For many application areas, we will see a combination or preference for one or more of these realities. It will be really interesting to see where developers flock. Meanwhile, there is a race to stake out market position these new realities. Facebook has placed its bet on VR with Oculus. Microsoft is targeting AR and beyond. Google will likely go after AR as it is redesigning Glass and is heavily invested in MagicLeap, possibly the closest competition to HoloLens to date. And we have yet to see which reality Apple chooses to tackle.