A pair of 3D ski glasses eclipsed Windows 10 at Microsoft’s next-generation event on Wednesday.
Headline writers and geeks cooed over HoloLens, a set of virtual reality eyewear, and accompanying 3D HoloLens software.
It was easy to get distracted from something as boring as a new Windows client. With free pricing and the return of the start button, Windows 10 sounds remarkably like a point upgrade to atone for Microsoft’s recent sins.
Not much victories to write home about in that.
To some HoloLens looked like the future. HoloLens changes everything said others. Microsoft fans were delighted – finally, one in the eye for Apple and Google, with CEO Steve Ballmer showing his pleasure by writing his 30th Tweet.
Today made all MSFT employees proud, customers excited and shareholders salivate. The wave of windows 10 hw, services OS rocks I love MSFT— Steve Ballmer (@stevebmicrosoft) January 22, 2015
Not since Jeff Bezos floating drones in December 2013 as an Amazon delivery vehicle could corporate PR be more satisfied with its diversionary tactics.
Is HoloLens a gimmick or is it the real deal?
Microsoft’s been desperate for a buzz-worthy technology to help it shake off the idea that the place you don’t go these days for innovation is up in Redmond. It needs to once more insert itself in the nexus of technology and culture for a modern world as it once did, in owning the names Windows and Word.
Buy a PC and, sorry Linux, the average consumer wants Windows. Open a document on a PC, you call it a “Word doc.”
Today, when people say they want a “tablet” what they really mean is an iPad, and when people say “Google” what they really mean is “internet search.”
Microsoft tried to out verb Google with “Bing” but it failed to catch on while it bought Skype to own VoIP calling and that’s not really translated into anything.
Today’s new frontier is wearables and VR. Google helped ignite the latter with Glass – the Android-powered internet-connected specs sported by Glassholes. The company exciting nerd interest in VR was, until last year was Oculus Rift - the 3D-headset maker swallowed by Facebook for $2bn.
Oculus Rift had obtained seriously cool status among geeks and nerds, excited by the idea VR was on the road to going mainstream. Facebook gave no reason as to why it bought Oculus Rift, other than for Mark Zuckerberg to say he’s focusing on new platforms.
HoloLens is Microsoft’s attempt to insert itself into this new field before others come to own it. It’s a huge bet: Microsoft has placed its money and its credibility as Facebook swallowed Oculus Rift for no discernable reason and as Google went and killed Glass.
VR is one of those technologies that’s always coming but never quite arrived: Lawnmower Man was the state of the art until Minority Report, and so it goes.
As for Glass: this was fiddly and unusable, and like squinting through a keyhole while wearing a pair a danger to your health.
Oculus Rift aside, Microsoft ha been working on augmented reality for years: its Cambridge Labs were the brains working on Kinect’s skeleton-tracking used. Cambridge has since been working on augmented reality and holo decks using linked up Kinect sensors.
HoloLens must have looked a lot more convincing to Microsoft in the run up to Wednesday before Google closed Glass. Microsoft’s so late to this party the sun’s coming up.
Where does this leave HoloLens?
Redmond has proved good at cooking up new ideas that excite geek interest.
It’s track record includes the Silverlight browser plug in, Surface multi-touch table - rebranded PixelSense – and Kinect, the hands-free controller for Xbox 360.
Kinect proved the proved the biggest hit, and longest serving, earning a Guinness World Record for fastest selling consumer device - 10 million in 60 days.
But does interest translate into money and mass markets?
Kinect has shifted more than 24 million units since launch in late 2010 and part of a $9bn annual gaming hardware business. Nerds rigged Kinect systems to drive armchairs hands free and to groom pussies. But Kinect remained a games controller. You want a scale of success? 82.6 million PCs sold world wide in just the fourth quarter of 2014, supposedly a sick market.
PixelSense found a niche in the hospitality market – hotels – and it stayed there.
What Microsoft wants, needs, is for HoloLens to penetrate that tech-cultural nexus. Microsft wants you to say and do HoloLens when what you really mean is VR. Putting Holospecs code in Windows 10 says that Microsoft wants to achieve that by putting 3D specs in the hands of ordinary developers and users, to help VR break free of the chasm that’s contained augmented reality as something for Reddit nerds not office workers.
Microsoft wants HoloLens to be part of the app economy, with those how’d build software for its app store building apps that can download to HoloLens, too.
Fine and dandy, but how do you build such apps for HoloLens? Microsoft hasn’t said.
Microsoft’s promo video, meanwhile, show HoloLens’ own creator can’t imagine its 3D specs getting use anywhere outside all the usual niches.
It forsees HoloLens used in modeling and design, science – NASA’s Mars Rover - and home entertainment. On the latter, there’s a shout out to Minecraft, bought by Microsoft for $2.5bn last year. The idea is for teens to enter their Minecraft world with Microsoft’s hardware on their face.
Either way, this isn't the ordinary person going about their ordinary, every day life alone and isolated from real life inside their 3D headware
HoloLens will find its part to play in Microsoft’s world. It just won’t become the world for Microsoft: more Kinnect Act II than leader of Glassholes. ®