Within days of Google cancelling its Glass Explorer program, Microsoft just steamrolled the whole augmented reality and virtual reality industries with the announcements (and demos) of the new Microsoft HoloLens.
The take-away: Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are coming. They aren't just fads. There is still a long way to go to reach what we all imagine and hope for, but Microsoft just made a giant step forward, and has the capability to drive hard and go big.
Before I dig into this, let me make a few points for clarification:
- No, they aren't really holograms. The HoloLens is another wearable device with transparent displays, just like more than a dozen other companies have on the market.
- This is augmented reality, not virtual reality. If you aren't sure about the difference, read my other blog posts on the subject.
- And no, I have not had a hands-on experience with these yet, so keep that in mind as you read through my comments. I'm making a few assumptions about the tech and experience, and accepting what other people are saying (including the marketing) at face value (for now).
- This post is based on my initial thoughts about what I've read so far regarding HoloLens, and some general observations about the industry.
Shock and Awe
For me at least, HoloLens is quite unexpected, especially the timing, and how well put together everything seems to be. It seems like a more complete package than anything else out there, and the demo examples were very compelling. I mean, come on...exploring mars, playing minecraft in the living room, and having a remote person guide you through a task and literally marking up objects in front of you with arrows and stuff. Pretty awesome.
The reliance here is on the demo, not some fancy concept marketing video. I feel like I could expect to have this in my hands any time, compared to some other products that feel like they are going to be in development for a few more years before anything substantial is released.
After reading a few articles on the demos from USA Today, CNet, Wired, The Verge, and others, I got the sense that those that were fortunate enough to experience HoloLens were pretty blown away and excited. I mean, this is MICROSOFT we are talking about. When was the last time you heard someone really excited about something Microsoft is doing?
All that aside, I think that the eventual impact of HoloLens is pretty understated right now. Sure, people will talk a lot about augmented reality and minecraft or whatever, but there is more at play here, and the shockwaves are still tiny right now, but they will turn into a major force as the Spring turns into Summer.
Name of the Game
Why did Microsoft go with "Holo" for HoloLens, and why are they calling everything Holograms? While technically incorrect, this is definitely a master stroke by some genius at Microsoft.
- Everyone knows what holograms are. Most people are clueless about augmented reality, even if you give them the usual Iron Man and Minority Report examples. Virtual Reality is easier to explain, but I find that you still have to explain it to people and even then, more blank stares than not. But holograms...very accessible. "It's like real 3D holograms in your living room! Imagine Princess Leia and R2D2!". Done. People get that.
- When you name or label something, that puts you in control or at least makes you the perceived authority.
- "Augmented Reality" is a mouthful and not very euphonic. I've had this discussion with many people in the industry and most have expressed some desires to find another name or description for the tech. Microsoft just did it for everyone. Watch now as everyone (especially marketers) start using variations of holograms and holo-. Heck, I bet every domain variation with the word holo in it will be scooped up in a matter of days. How will Microsoft respond? Will they try to enforce branding and trademark to some degree?
Augmented Reality's Dirty Little Secret
Well, two dirty little secrets. Dirty secret number one...augmented reality, seen through wearables with transparent displays are, well, transparent. Without some black or opaque background, any graphics on a transparent lens will be see-through. It doesn't matter how photorealistic it is, it will look a bit ghostly. Obviously this is different when you experience augmented reality on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet, but that is because the AR graphics are overlaid on a video on a screen that is not transparent.
This is definitely a negative, but since we are calling virtual objects and data that you see in AR holograms now, it suddenly makes sense and resets our biases and expectations a little bit.
The other dirty little secret is the actual window or field of view for wearable displays. The world doesn't magically change when you put on a pair of displays, but rather there is a small square or rectangular-ish space in each lens that you are looking through that can display graphics. This is one of the reasons why people wearing these move their heads around a lot, instead of just their eyes. We can still have some amazing experiences with the current-state-of-the-art, but this is one area where the hardware guys will be chipping away at for years to come, until we have full peripheral augmented, er "holographic" I mean, vision.
So, all those awesome concept videos videos for AR HMDs (head mounted displays) aren't quite what the actual experience is. Fortunately though, there is a growing number of researchers, developers, and startups working on this sort of thing. It won't be long.
One thing that struck me about the HoloLens videos and use cases, is that they were all indoors.
- Transparent displays offer a dismal experience in brightly lit areas. This will ultimately be fixed when the whole opacity issue is sorted out. In the meantime, a dark shade or lens behind the transparent lenses helps, but that also diminishes the real world part of the experience and makes it harder to see real objects indoors.
- If I'm going to wear some augmented reality glasses outside, they need to look like a pair of sunglasses. Not a Robocop dome or a bulky headband.
Having said that, all of the use cases were indoors, and that is likely where HoloLens and other AR products will excel. Microsoft played this well here. HoloLens doesn't have to be this amazing thing you use everywhere that does everything, helps you pick up dates, or make you look smarter or like a successful valley hipster.
Let's not forget about privacy
Remember all the complaints about Google Glass and privacy? HoloLens has a camera on it as well. I think the difference is you aren't likely to see someone wearing HoloLens at a bar, a stripclub, or at the movie theater, but still, the point remains. You need a camera feed for all of these awesome experiences (especially the one where your dad is giving you tips on how to fix the plumbing under the sink and needs to see what you are doing).
Personally, I think all the privacy alarmists with Google Glass are making a big deal out of nothing. If Glass just added a tiny red "recording" light, it wouldn't be any different than snapping video with your smartphone. Everyone knows your camera is on and recording. If it is just on for computer vision tracking or image recognition of objects, no one should care and the light shouldn't need to be on.
Anyone that complains about privacy with HoloLens is just going to be looking for attention or trolling.
Why is HoloLens such a big deal?
There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest one here is that we are talking about Microsoft. Microsoft is going to take augmented reality mainstream. Watch how many startups will suddenly appear to develop games and other apps for HoloLens. If Google doesn't wake up, Microsoft is going to eat their lunch, in more ways than one. Apple can keep filing overly broad patents all day long and hinting at i-this and i-that, but Microsoft is doing it now. Everyone is going to play catch up. I meant it when I said steamrolled.
Something else to consider...the showcase of HoloLens at the Windows 10 premiere event is not to be ignored. I expect that there is more going on behind the scenes that is going to tie a lot of interesting things together, which is going to be awesome for consumers and developers. We aren't talking about some fun hardware and maybe an SDK or yet another app store, or a cool AR demo based on one of the off-the-shelf AR platforms already out there...HoloLens is going to be tightly integrated into the whole Microsoft ecosystem and culture and all that entails. Half of the story is the HoloLens itself (hardware) but the real big deal in my opinion is everything else. Just think of these things will be integrated with the XBox.
The industry is drowsy and mumbling in its sleep right now, but I expect that sometime in the very near future a lot of companies, developers, and investors are going to jolt awake as they realize what is going on, and the augmented reality war will really kick off. One happy result will be an acceleration in innovation and advancement (hardware and software) as everyone starts to try to leverage the platform for more amazing applications or compete directly with another ecosystem for market share. Anyway you look at it, Microsoft's HoloLens is going to make waves.
Personally, I plan on surfing those waves. Speaking of which, Investors, Venture Capitalists, and the Press are always welcome to contact me and chat about the industry, what trends are evolving, where the opportunities are, and of course, what I'm working on.
Thank you Microsoft. The future just got a bit more interesting.
Feel free to chime in if you have a comment or a different perspective on what I'm talking about here. Seriously, leave a comment. Lots of comments means I'll publish blog posts more often (I know, I'm a slacker). Also, feel free to get me introduced to Alex Kipman at Microsoft. I want to see these things first hand.