In January 2015, at the extremely anticipated Windows 10 event, Microsoft unveiled what could be considered its most important project ever: the Microsoft HoloLens. If you are not up-to-date with Microsoft’s projects, the HoloLens is an augmented reality headset that uses the space around you to project holograms. The headset uses spatial sound and see-through lenses coupled with a powerful CPU, GPU, and holographic processor in order to provide the users with a unique experience wherever they are, without the need to be connected to a computer or a phone.
The HoloLens is a direct technological upgrade to Google’s failed project, the Google Glass. While both headsets used see-through lenses, the Google Glass was a lot lighter in the technology front, and due to a lack of promotion from Google, coupled with a failure to impress the public, the Google Glass ultimately failed and was forgotten about. That is until the HoloLens was revealed to the public, dazing everyone with its many features and utilities.
In spite of its huge success with the public following its unveiling, the HoloLens seems to have completely fallen off the map for many technology enthusiasts, as Microsoft completely dropped the ball on advertising the headset and building hype for it. In order to understand what happened to Microsoft’s ambitious augmented reality project and how it got to where it is now, we need to create a roadmap and go over the events that helped define the HoloLens in the public’s eye.
One of the things that initially created hype around Microsoft’s holographic headset was that it came out of left field: after a fairly uneventful event at the Windows 10 press conference, the public was hit with what would be the most interesting thing Microsoft had produced in years. Alex Kipman, the man leading the team behind HoloLens, presented the headset in all its full glory, after years of working on it in complete secrecy. The public got to see a convincing trailer and an on-stage demo of the HoloLens, with people using the headset to communicate, share files, explore the surface of Mars as if they were there, and play Minecraft in a brand new way.
But the element of surprise is just one of the many factors that got technology fans and casual computer users alike to spread the word about the HoloLens. The biggest factor was the fact that unlike Google Glass, the HoloLens promised a lot: from being its own computer and not needing tethering to a mobile device to being able to control the holograms you see with simple hand gestures and voice commands. No matter what their stance on Microsoft was, people were genuinely impressed by the initiative, as it brought a breath of fresh air into a market oversaturated by mobile phones and virtual reality headsets.
Minecraft is the world’s second best-selling video game across all platforms, being behind only Tetris, a classic known by everyone ever since its release in 1984. What makes Minecraft great is the fact that it appeals to younger audiences by challenging their creativity and imagination and placing them into a world where they are free to create whatever they want, with some users going as far as creating actual working programs inside the game’s world.
Given that Microsoft now owns Minecraft and its development team, and given the huge success and influence the game has on pop culture, the next step was logical: use Minecraft as a stepping stone for HoloLens’ foray into gaming. Therefore, only a few months after the HoloLens’ review, at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo (also known as E3), the world got to experience a brand new way of playing Minecraft. Using the HoloLens, the player got to project the entire Minecraft world onto a surface of his choice and was able to manipulate the world and his focus using voice commands. As fantastic as the demonstration looked, people were quick to debunk it based on the reviews of journalists who got to experience the HoloLens, who claimed that the field of view of the HoloLens is way smaller than what was shown on-stage at E3.
In addition to the on-stage Minecraft demo, journalists who attended E3 got to experience a HoloLens demo that put them inside a briefing from the Halo universe, which is one of the most iconic Xbox franchises. This demo received a lot of praise from many publications, with some saying that because of the headset’s ability to function completely disconnected from any other device, they felt that they were truly inside the Halo universe.
After E3, Microsoft seemed to know they had gold on their hands, as they were determined to push the HoloLens in every possible domain and make it as relevant as ever. Therefore, less than two weeks after the Microsoft E3 event where HoloLens captivated everyone, Microsoft announced a partnership program with NASA called Sidekick that would have boosted the HoloLens, along with its popularity, into space. Literally: the astronauts aboard the International Space Station were supposed to receive two HoloLens headsets that would have enabled them to communicate and receive instructions from Earth more efficiently than ever before. However, it seems that fate had other plans for Microsoft and the revolutionary headset.
On 28 June 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to deliver the two HoloLens headsets, along with other technology and resources, to the astronauts that were eagerly awaiting on the International Space Station. The flight, which was broadcasted live on the Internet and on certain television channels, seemed to be successful at first, with the rocket’s first stage going as expected. However, in the second stage of flight, the rocket exploded, much to everyone’s dismay. According to Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, the explosion was caused due to “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.”
Following the failed attempt, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella tweeted that they understand the difficulty of launching a rocket into space and that they were not discouraged from being a NASA partner, and that they were willing to try again at another time.
Several days later, completely unfazed by the failure of their first partnership program with NASA, Microsoft announced that it would grant a HoloLens development kit along with a $100,000 grant to 5 different academies that submitted the best ideas involving holographic computing. After this project, Microsoft seems to have suddenly dropped the ball on marketing and promoting the HoloLens, as the interest for the headset dropped amongst the general public. Nothing of note happened at Microsoft’s Build event in October, and that seemed to be the case up until February of 2016 when the HoloLens finally became available for preorder.
At the end of February 2016, Microsoft officially announced a release date for the first iteration of HoloLens available to the public. Called the Development Version, it shipped on March 30 to those who preordered, and you can still buy it today, as long as you are willing to pay $3,000 to get a version suited for developers, and as long as you are a resident of the United States or Canada. However, unless you are truly dedicated to owning a headset, or you have a brilliant idea that uses holographic computing, it’s advisable to wait for the future generations of HoloLens.
Even though this iteration of the headset might not be targeted to the average user, chances are that most of the people reading this article didn’t even know that the HoloLens had launched. This is a testament to Microsoft’s shoddy marketing for it during the past year and might spell doom for the once-famed headset. It is no doubt that once the headset will have a reasonable price point for the casual user, it will catch on eventually, but this will have to happen with the help of Microsoft’s advertising team.
Following a not-so-popular release of the Development Edition, Microsoft was at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, announcing partnerships with multiple computer manufacturers that are going to be creating third-party augmented reality headsets. The third-party headsets will use the technology behind the HoloLens in order to provide users with a taste of the full experience that will come with an eventual release of the HoloLens targeted towards consumers. While the third-party headsets will only cost around $300, they will require a constant connection to a PC, so you will not be able to take them around the city as you would’ve guessed.
Additionally, there are rumors circulating the Internet that a Hololens 2 is about to be announced by Microsoft. The second version of the Hololens is supposed to be the first version designed for actual commercial use and currently, has two styles. One will be more lightweight and normal-looking, in the style of Google Glass, and will feature an Infrared sensor and a camera in the middle, between the lenses. The other is supposed to look much like the existing, Development Edition, and may have features such as voice modulators and creating realistic holograms using shadows. Not much else is known about the upcoming version, apart from the fact that an estimated release date is 2018.
If you are not planning to wait around for Microsoft to release a consumer edition of the HoloLens, or if you don’t want to experience augmented reality on a poorer version of the famed headset, then you should check out some of the alternatives on the market. Microsoft is definitely not the first to use augmented reality, and it won’t be the last. The unexpected success of Pokemon Go shows us that anyone can use holograms in a successful way.The initial buzz created by the reveal of the Hololens paved the way for many other augmented reality headsets that are either available for purchase right now or in the near future. One of the best examples is the Meta 2, which is a $949 alternative to the Hololens, boasting an HD display and gesture control akin to the Hololens’, albeit with a smaller field of view.
If that is way over your budget, then perhaps the clever ZapBox might do the job for you. This “Google Cardboard-esque” approach to augmented reality only costs 30 dollars but requires you to pop your phone into the holder and spread some “chips” around your room in order to control the holograms. The ZapBox was an absolute hit on Kickstarter and is set to release in May 2017.
What if you don’t enjoy the look of the Hololens, and you thought that Google Glass had it right the first time? Well, there are a number of headsets for you! The best Google Glass clones are arguably the Vuzix Smart Glasses line. Starting at 1000 dollars for the most basic model, the M100, the Vuzix glasses function much like the Google Glass, requiring you to connect them to your phone, while also having their own App Store, which means that what they can do is only limited by the imagination of their users.
If none of the alternatives above caught your eye, then you could always hop over to Kickstarter, as there are many start-up companies with their unique spin on augmented reality that could always use some extra funding.
The HoloLens has most of the things it needs in order to succeed in a market, and it will undoubtedly be a huge success. One thing that will ensure its success is the fact that it runs Windows 10, which means that besides the apps developed especially with holographic computing in mind, it also has access to apps and games that use the “Universal Windows Platform”, meaning that it will have a large selection of software available from the start. Therefore, even early adopters of the new holographic platform will have something to try out, and will not feel like they are still paving the way for people who will get the headset later on.
No matter how beefy the hardware of the HoloLens will be, or how many apps its app store will offer, the HoloLens still has a chance to fail, as long as Microsoft does not improve its marketing department. Currently, it looks as if Microsoft doesn’t care about marketing at all. This is a problem regarding all of its brands: many first-party video games for the Xbox fail to reach a high number of sales due to lackluster or simply nonexistent advertising campaigns. It could be argued that this “fear” of advertising has stemmed from the backlash they have received during the Windows 10 upgrade campaign, where Microsoft went all-in with their advertising campaign, constantly reminding people running Windows 7 and 8 that they were eligible for a free upgrade. In some cases, the operating system installed itself automatically, without the users prompt.
Whatever the cause, it is clear that the HoloLens will need Microsoft’s full support in order to thrive in a competitive market that is dominated by both innovation and softcore plagiarism. With one of Microsoft’s biggest brand competitors, Apple left without any response to HoloLens’ impending dominion over the augmented reality market, Microsoft doesn’t have any reason not to go all-in with their headset, just as they did with their operating system.