Microsoft Just Fired Latest Volley In The Face Computer Battle

Microsoft shocked the world today when they debuted a set of holographic goggles they are calling the HoloLens. Think Google Glass meets Oculus Rift and you should have a good idea of this device. With this announcement, the market for computers on our faces is suddenly heating up.

We now have Microsoft, Facebook and Google trying to build one. While we have yet to see such an attempt by Apple, it’s logical to assume if the other kids are doing it, they will too at some point.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 1.48.51 PMMicrosoft’s entrance into this arena comes just days after Google scrapped the Glass Explorer’s program and handed the project reins to Nest’s Tony Fadell. It’s still unclear which direction Google intends to go with Glass at this point.

Meanwhile Oculus continues to work on its Oculus Rift device with the deep pockets of owner Facebook behind it. Oculus Rift bills itself as virtual reality glasses, while Microsoft calls it a holographic experience, but the idea here is very similar.

The question on everyone’s lips is if this kind of technology has mass-consumer potential. It surely demos well, and makes for super-cool videos, but we saw what happened when Glass was released to the world. It went negative quickly as people made it clear they didn’t like the idea computers sitting on people’s faces, especially when they could record video and take pictures.

But Microsoft seems to have a more focused vision for their device. They see a tool for business used to enhance the engineering and design experience and to let people meet virtually as though they were in the same room. They also see it as a highly-advanced, fully-immersive gaming activity.

This is actually in line with what Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said at Web Summit in November. He can see his device being used for games, but also for business to give the illusion of face-to-face meetings, even when people are across the world. He also acknowledged his was just one company working on this problem and he fully expected other companies to enter the space. Little did he know one would be Microsoft just months later.

2015-01-21_1042Microsoft talked a lot about removing barriers between the device and the person. We’ve seen how much more natural it is to interact with a touch-screen tablet than a PC with a keyboard and mouse. By the same token, Microsoft believes removing the screen altogether will provide a purer experience.

Of course, slapping a device on your face produces another layer of complexity between the user and the computer, but it has the potential to provide a more engrossing, all-encompassing experience. It just remains to be seen whether we desire this.

As we saw with Glass, which clearly was an early prototype experiment, many people were intrigued by the notion of a face computer, but the reality was different. Think about an office full of people wearing these things, and we may have a more organic connection with our computers, but we could lose social interactions in the process.

Iribe said one of the big obstacles they were finding with virtual reality (VR) was the notion of input. It’s not all hands-free as you might think, so engineers need to decide if users can see their bodies or just their hands and how exactly they will interact with the physical and computer worlds when they have this device on. He said that VR will transform human interaction, but how we interact with the world from these devices is not at all clear and still being defined.

Microsoft suggested that the HoloLens could be introduced with Windows 10 sometime later this year. The company has thought this through with a platform and tools for building what they are calling holographic experiences for HoloLens. And when a company like Microsoft gets involved, it should push the space forward (and very likely lure Apple in the process).

As Google found, building the device is not enough. Still, Google did something essential. It took the first step and it started the conversation. Microsoft and Facebook are continuing that conversation, and I expect over the next 3-5 years, this technology will develop in ways we can’t even imagine right now. Face computers are coming, but how this will all play out, and what kind of market this will attract, remains to be seen.