During a press event at the Computex 2016 trade show in Taipei on Wednesday morning, Microsoft revealed that it will open up the technology behind its mixed reality HoloLens device to hardware partners. And it will forego a virtual reality (VR) solution of its own so that partners can combine mixed reality and VR in an integrated fashion.
“Mixed reality is the next frontier,” Microsoft’s Terry Myerson says. “Imagine wearing a VR device and seeing your physical hands as you manipulate an object, working on the scanned 3D image of a real object, or bringing in a holographic representation of another person into your virtual world so you can collaborate. In this world, devices can spatially map your environment wherever you are; manipulating digital content is as easy and natural as picking up a box or sitting at a table; and you can easily teleport into your next meeting or travel together as a team.”
Microsoft’s announcement is vague on the details, but it does in part address some pressing questions, the most obvious of which is: Why has the software giant ignored the exploding world of VR in order to focus on its more esoteric mixed reality technology? My take on this is that Microsoft was simply far along with mixed reality—which it used to call augmented reality—whereas others like Oculus Rift had already made significant gains with VR. So AR—sorry, mixed reality—was a place where Microsoft could differentiate.
But the trouble with mixed reality is that it’s not very compelling outside of vertical and niche markets; VR, by comparison, has a better chance of becoming a mainstream computing experience, thanks to both low-end solutions (like Google’s nearly-free Cardboard) and very high-quality solutions, of which there are now many. So Microsoft was able to do the next best thing: Let partners combine what used to be called AR with VR and create a new market for mixed reality products. Mixed reality isn’t just AR or VR, it’s betterbecause it’s the combination of both.
Well, that’s the marketing take, anyway.
According to Microsoft, the market for VR devices is expected to hit 80 million units per year by 2020, so the market for mixed reality solutions will be some subset of that. But the software giant is also offering the promise of a more cohesive and compatible mixed reality future: Where today’s VR solutions—Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Cardboard, PlayStation VR and so on—are all incompatible with each other, Microsoft is standardizing mixed reality on its Windows 10-based Windows Holographic technology, the foundation of HoloLens.
“This creates new business opportunities, unlocking mixed reality experiences across devices,” Myerson claims. “For developers, Windows Holographic apps can be written today with confidence that they will run on the broadest set of devices.”
To that end, Microsoft is partnering with a range of companies that span both the PC and VR worlds: AMD, Qualcomm, HTC, Acer, ASUS, CyberPowerPC, Dell, Falcon Northwest, HP, iBuyPower, Lenovo, MSI and “many others.” And it is promoting Windows 10 as the underlying platform of this work, since this OS includes Windows Holographic. “Windows Holographic… offers a holographic shell and interaction model, perception APIs, and Xbox Live services,” Myerson continues.
This announcement impacts HoloLens as well.
As you may know, HoloLens is currently available only to a curated set of developers and is expensive at $3000 per unit. Given its pre-release state, there are currently no mainstream software applications available for the device, beyond what’s bundled with the Windows 10 version that ships with HoloLens and the handful of HoloLens-compatible apps that developers have created so far. (Or, as Microsoft puts it, “there are hundreds of Universal Windows Apps in the Windows Store today”) But since Microsoft announced HoloLens in early 2015, many have wondered about an expected consumer release? When is that happening?
If I’m understanding today’s announcement, the answer to that question is “never”: Microsoft intends for its partners to release lower-cost devices for consumers, and it will keep HoloLens at the high- (or niche-) end of the market, as an aspirational device for both partners and customers.
Here’s how Myerson talks around this topic.
“Consistent with our approach to Surface, our development efforts on HoloLens are designed to push the limits and create opportunity across the ecosystem,” he says. Granted, Surface devices are of course sold to end users. But they are extremely expensive, and partners have been allowed to mimic Surface hardware designs in their own devices, most of which are much less expensive.
Microsoft promises more information about its plans for HoloLens, Windows Holographic, and partner devices at the WinHEC Shenzhen and Taipei shows this fall.
Tagged with HoloLens