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Microsoft announced its heavyweight contender in the wearable technology market: the HoloLens. And despite the proof of concept, it’s creating a lot of skepticism in its wake.

What the Microsoft HoloLens might look like

The Rise (and fall) of Wearable Technology

Wearable technology has been getting a considerable amount of press in the last few years after the announcement, availability, and demise of Google Glass. Despite its failure to launch, Glass was an important milestone in the evolution of wearable technology. It not only captured our imagination but it proved that such a technological promise is possible (even if we decide it’s not for us).

Paralleling the release of Google Glass was the development of Oculus Rift, riding the front of the virtual reality wave. The Oculus Rift has the potential of being the most viable mass-market VR device in an industry that was struggling to bring an affordable and effective solution to everyone.

But like we saw at CES 2015, competitors are already flooding the marketplace with early models that are trying to battle Oculus Rift head-to-head in the virtual reality market. Some competitors realize “just another virtual reality goggle” isn’t going to cut it: Samsung is working with Oculus Rift to develop goggles that use your mobile phone as the screen, and gaming peripheral company Razer has plans to open-source virtual reality development to the masses with their OSVR (Open Source Virtual Reality, of course).

Microsoft isn’t merely putting a shiny veneer on yet another virtual reality goggle. In fact, they’re not even making a virtual reality goggle: they’re creating technology designed to integrate with the world around you.

Microsoft HoloLens demos a remote plumbing repair

How the HoloLens Could Win: It Isn’t “Virtual Reality”

Oculus Rift and every proposed VR headset is designed to transport the user to another world by enveloping their eyes in an opaque screen that monopolizes the full user view. The HoloLens is markedly different: it is a transparent series of screens–three, to be exact–that project three-dimensional images into the world around you. It’s a trick of the light on the back of your eyeballs: the three screens project red, green, and blue light onto your retina and trick your brain into believing those objects exist in reality.

The HoloLens is designed to augment the world around you, not transport you to another world. And this is where Microsoft is banking on not competing directly with VR goggles such as the Oculus Rift, placing them into another category all their own. In fact, Microsoft is carefully avoiding the term “augment”, perhaps so that the device is not likened to Google Glass (which relied heavily on the term in their market positioning).

This month’s HoloLens media frenzy relayed to us fantastical use cases demonstrated by Microsoft as proof-of-concept, so fantastical that they seemed to have been ripped from BLADE RUNNER. Constructing our own three-dimensional objects and bringing them to life with a 3D printer. Turning our living room into a stage that’s host to a MINECRAFT-inspired game experience. Repairing a sink pipe with the help of your far-flung dad through a live Skype video. Missions to Mars where you can explore the landscape with a live NASA astronaut that were so real they nearly left the press in awe after a trial run.

Play Minecraft in your living room with the Microsoft HoloLens

A Deck Stacked Against the HoloLens

Despite the exciting vision, we don’t always believe what we see.

It began with the live-streamed press announcement. On January 21, Microsoft executives paraded out onto the stage in attire customary of “next generation” technology announcements: fitted long-sleeve t-shirts, dark colors, white-edged sneakers. With bravado they each announced a series of new products presented as life changing. In front of glowing screens displaying the Windows 10 logo they expertly navigated well-rehearsed, press-friendly speeches designed for rousing applause and cheers.

HoloLens being tried on by Microsoft executives

Instead, after each product announcement, you could hear the hesitation and skepticism in the delayed and sparse clapping. Mobile announcements, OneDrive, Windows 10–reserved reactions. Surely the big bang at the end would get them standing on their feet? I held my breath as Alex Kipman, the inventor behind the Kinect, took the stage. His enthusiastic wind-up to the moment. The polished promotional video for the HoloLens, contrasting a world where technology is compartmentalized and then where it is integrated, replaced the Windows 10 logo on the stage’s screens.

And then a brief silence, almost like the audience was asking itself a question after watching their first glimpse of the HoloLens. “Is this for real? Can I trust what I see?” The question hung in the air between the end of the video and the reserved applause that trickled in.

No hoots and hollers. Barely one or two short whistles. A sea of reservation from the press. Why? Perhaps it was the fact that a group of professional technology analysts and critics were in attendance instead of enthusiastic consumers.

Is the Kinect a foreshadow of the HoloLens’s demise?

We who use technology as a lifestyle have a short memory: we might have forgotten the promise and the fall of Microsoft’s Kinect over the last five years where the press has not forgotten. Any new technology that’s sold as a revolutionary category on its own is often met with trepidation–especially one that has so much dramatic promise.

The story of the Kinect casts a shadow of doubt in the days after the HoloLens’s announcement. It captured our imaginations with an early promotional video in 2009 that promised an intensely interactive experience: being able to interact with objects in the game, intimately tracking body movement for a game of soccer, tracking facial recognition to interact with the player, turning the player’s limbs into the remote control.

We’ve learned that if it seems too good, it probably is. The reality of the Kinect did not live up to its expectations: it has a limited tracking range, cannot decipher movement to the degree necessary, and only seems to work for facial recognition. No wonder the press is so hesitant, especially considering it came from the same inventor and the same company as the HoloLens.

The Future ‘Ain’t Now: A Long Road Ahead

Microsoft and the press both admit that there is still a long road ahead before it’s commercially viable. Though the technology seems to work, it worked in a controlled demonstration environment. Trained aides were on hand to guide demos. A living room was set up specifically for the interactive MINECRAFT gaming experience. Reporters shared that they had to be ginger with using the headset, and the power pack was awkwardly hung from the user’s neck. (Microsoft representatives were sure to let the press know that this was all a temporary solution.)

For the HoloLens to be a market success, Microsoft will need to proceed with caution and release the product at just the right time. Too soon, the HoloLens might not be able to live up to its promise and doomed to failure. Consumers expect the experience that they were promised, and if it’s not out-of-the-box ready, they will be quick to move on. Releasing the technology too late might allow it to live up to its technological promises but the market may be crowded with augmented reality competitors, or perhaps consumers will be tired of waiting and have moved on entirely.

The current projected estimation is “in the lifetime of Windows 10”. That is a wide-open window, but perhaps it’s better to give Microsoft the space and time for them to perfectly forge their vision that has left a positive if not skeptical impression. If executed properly, it could be the new face of the personal computer, potentially phasing out laptops used away from the office.

Do you think Microsoft is on the brink of a new computing revolution or is the HoloLens too big a vision to be a reality?

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