Without a phone, Microsoft's AR efforts may be worthless

Microsoft's Hololens is a standalone wearable Windows 10 computer that places 3D holograms in the wearer's field of view and does everything else Windows 10 PCs can. Additionally, Microsoft's Windows Mixed Reality, AR and virtual reality (VR) platform allows developers to build holographic apps for HoloLens and Windows 10 PCs.

Microsoft's HoloLens and Windows Mixed Reality comprise a comprehensive platform for the development and deployment of holographic content. With a 500 million Windows 10 install base, Microsoft has a massive mixed reality platform. As impressive as that sounds Microsoft has made little impact in mainstreaming AR.

Microsoft's Mixed Reality mission

With Paint 3D, which allows Windows 10 users to create and share 3D content to Remix 3D, and Windows Mixed Reality, Microsoft has empowered developers and consumers of varying skill levels to create content for 3D environments. Microsoft even boasted that 3D is for everyone and demonstrated a yet-to-be released smartphone app called Windows Capture 3D Experience. The app allows users to scan real objects to produce 3D models.

If 3D is for everyone, why isn't Microsoft marketing Paint 3D to anyone?

In conjunction with supporting 3D content creation, Microsoft partnered with OEMs to bring affordable VR headsets to consumers this year. Led by Elizabeth Hamren, former CMO of Oculus VR at Facebook, Microsoft will heavily market these VR headsets.

That covers VR, but what about AR?

With all of its innovation and earlier entry with HoloLens, Microsoft's lack of a successful smartphone platform is putting it behind the competition as rivals are introducing AR to the masses via smartphone-based solutions.

Apple takes a bite out of AR

During Apple's 2017 World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC), the company announced that iOS 11 would include ARkit which will allow developers to bring AR to hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users later this year. This will make iOS the world's largest AR platform.

Compared to the $3,000 HoloLens, which is still limited to select sectors like the U.S. Army, NASA, health care and education, ARkit is a "free" consumer-focused upgrade. Developers are already embracing it.

ARKit is limited to projecting 3D objects within the small window of an iPad or iPhone. Conversely, HoloLens provides a hands-free, and more visually and audibly immersive experience. Still, ARkit opens the door for developers to populate the App Store with millions of AR-specific apps for millions of iPhone users. Apple's smartphone-based AR platform is poised to garner tremendous mindshare that Microsoft's far more advanced but far less supported (with only 150 HoloLens-specific apps and relatively little exposure) can achieve.

Apple's next logical and rumored step will be smartglasses that will reap the benefits of the imminent deluge of AR-specific apps and consumer mindshare. Without a smartphone, Microsoft will struggle to combat this level of support and accessibility to AR. The only AR device Microsoft has is HoloLens, and an affordable consumer version is years away. Even if an OEM partner brings a Windows 10 AR headset to market, it will do little to combat the massive developer support, and mindshare Apple's ARkit will achieve. The smartphone which is the nexus for a number of emerging technologies is proving to be the bridge to mainstreaming AR.

Google grapples with VR and AR

Last October, Google introduced the Daydream View headset which allows users to use VR-ready smartphones like the Galaxy S8 and the Moto Z to experience VR. Google's Daydream VR goals include support for standalone headsets, like those from Vive and Lenovo, that won't require a smartphone or PC. Google's wearable VR efforts will compete with Microsoft's Mixed Reality VR headset strategy. Apple has no compelling contender in this arena.

Like Microsoft's efforts with Paint 3D, Google is providing users with tools to create 3D content for virtual worlds. Unlike the 2D PC-based environment Microsoft employs, however, Google uses the virtual world, via a VR headset, as the canvas using its Blocks and Tilt Brush applications. Blocks allow users to create, move, paint and modify their 3D creations with natural gestures, as seen in the video below.

Paint 3D has the advantage of being available to millions of Windows 10 PC users while VR headsets are still niche. Microsoft's baffling problem, however, is that it's not marketing Paint 3D, its purpose nor its potential. Like many things, it seems Microsoft will allow the competition to outmaneuver it due to its failure to execute.

Google 'tangos' with AR

Google's Tango, which supports the company's AR and VR investments, allows devices to track distances and their position. The technology has been used for AR to superimpose virtual objects over the real world. Tango is also an essential part of Google's Visual Positioning Service (VPS) which allows devices to perceive and understand their positions indoors.

Like its successful efforts with its VR-focused Google Cardboard, Google is bringing AR-based lessons to the classroom via its Pioneer Program this school year.

As seen in the above video, the smartphone-based AR platform allows students to view 3D objects in their physical environment. Google's investments in smartphone-based AR and VR in the education sector are grabbing mindshare among the next generation.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft's HoloLens is being used in the education sector as well and provides a much more interactive experience than the phone-on-a-stick experience Google's solution provides. Still, the costs for each solution most certainly leans in Google's favor.

Google gets to the ARCore of the matter

Google's ARCore is a smartphone-based AR solution that builds on the technologies pioneered by Tango. Like Apple's ARKit, ARCore will be deployed on existing Android hardware running 7.0 Nougat or above. Samsung's Galaxy S8 and the Google Pixel are among the first of these devices. Google's goal is to bring AR to 100 million devices by the end of the preview and is working with a number of manufacturers like ASUS, LG and others to accomplish this goal.

Google demos ARCore.

Google's goal is to extend beyond the tabletop-type AR experiences it shares with Apple's ARKit solution. It's VPS will allow the company to produce world-scale AR experiences. Google's AR ambitions also extend to the web, where it is providing web developers with browsers to begin creating web-based AR experiences. AR-enhanced websites, via these browsers, will run on both Android's ARCore and iOS's ARKit.

The mere news of Google's and Apple's AR efforts is beginning to overshadow Microsoft's methodically executed and comprehensive accomplishments. Once consumers begin experiencing AR on their iPhones and Android smartphones, seeing an obscure HoloLens video or reading about a future HoloLens may impress, but that abstract exposure will be quickly overshadowed by the real AR experience in the palm of users' hands.

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!