Skepticism looms following Microsoft’s unveiling of HoloLens.
Microsoft’s preview of Windows 10 began as an awkwardly hurried affair. At one point during the January unveiling, devices boss Joe Belfiore said he’d speed things up “for the sake of time,” an unusual statement considering he was showing off what was supposed to be a refreshing new version of the company’s unpopular cash cow. But it soon became clear that the operating system wasn’t the star of the show. After Belfiore’s Windows 10 demo, his company trotted out Alex Kipman, a lithe, mop-headed Jobsian figure with a knack for hyperbole.
“A few years ago,” Kipman began, “we started asking ourselves, could we make things so simple that technology could disappear? Could we make technology more human, and easier to use? … We’re dreaming beyond virtual worlds, beyond screens, beyond pixels, and beyond today’s digital borders. We’re dreaming about holograms.”
Kipman’s transcending revelation was HoloLens, a Windows-compatible headset that projects holograms onto a user’s surroundings. After the event, talk of HoloLens permeated the tech and mainstream media. For a day or two, it appeared Kipman’s project was the beginning of an Apple-like innovation resurgence for Microsoft. But unlike an Apple rollout, the HoloLens chatter has since subsided. Microsoft got its 15 minutes of fame, and now it’s back to being “that Windows company.”
Microsoft has a history of being late. It lagged behind competitors on phones, tablets, and cloud computing, allowing companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple to rack up clout and cash in those areas. Few view Microsoft as an innovative company anymore, so it unveiled HoloLens in January to revamp its musty image.
What is actually at stake with HoloLens is up for interpretation. If you believe Microsoft’s rhetoric, then anything less than a computational revolution would be a failure. But HoloLens’ actual role is likely more nuanced. The device is innovative and risky, traits today’s consumers and workforce don’t associate with Microsoft. In a story titled “HoloLens: Microsoft Finally Does Something Interesting,” The New Yorker sums up the low expectations surrounding the company: “If the traditional parlor game ahead of Apple events is to try to predict the specifications of the next cool product, a more common preoccupation at Microsoft events is to muse about whether people even want what the company is selling.”
How effective HoloLens is in either of those roles depends on how it is received after launch — which could be late this year, when Windows 10 is expected to be released — when real-world users get a crack at it and the device has faded from the glow of its reveal. An unfortunate comparison would be Google Glass, which failed miserably and was discontinued just before HoloLens was unveiled.
Glass was a groundbreaking technology, projecting information such as email notifications and turn-by-turn directions on a tiny screen. But it looked weird, and the technology never proved more valuable than the occasional glance at a smartphone.
HoloLens could suffer a similar fate. Journalists who tried out the product after the reveal were widely impressed with its capabilities, but they were almost ubiquitously skeptical of its ability to become a widespread product. A tester for The Verge wrote, “Before you can apply your jaded ‘I’ve done VR before’ attitude to this situation, you look down at the coffee table and there’s a castle sitting right on the damn thing. … It’s nearly as lifelike as the actual table, and there’s no lag at all. The castle is there. It’s simply magic.” But in an accompanying video post, the author said, “I think of it the same way I think of Google Glass.”
For all its amazing capabilities, HoloLens has a couple things working against it. First, it’s about the size of ski goggles. And there’s that tender balance of matching a high-quality device with high-quality applications. A device won’t achieve great sales unless there are ample applications for it to run, and developers won’t make apps for a device they see little promise in — a principle Microsoft has suffered through with Windows Phone.
Users — and potential Microsoft recruits — may also question just how innovative the product is. HoloLens likely will be the first augmented reality headset to hit the market, but it certainly isn’t the first such device in consumers’ minds — Glass holds that title. Furthermore, competitors could roll out better products. Sony and Facebook-owned Oculus have virtual reality sets in the works. Many already crown startup Magic Leap as the king of augmented reality, and it hasn’t even released a product yet.
HoloLens may eventually be labeled a gimmick, but it’s a sign of progress that Microsoft is even included in this innovation conversation.