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What HoloLens means for Microsoft and the future of personal computing

HoloLens and Microsoft Windows logo
HoloLens and Microsoft Windows logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

That'd be HoloLens, a ground-breaking concept of mixed-reality holographic computing delivered via a self-contained untethered wearable computer, and the new computing platform Windows Holographic. Microsoft's vision is of a world where the boundaries between our real and digital experiences are no more.

Microsoft inventor Alex Kipman summed it up this way:

"Until now, we've immersed ourselves in the world of technology,"…"But, what if we could take technology and bring it into our world?" "Holograms can become part of our everyday life."

Until we saw that first HoloLens demo, a world where the tangible and immaterial shared and interacted within the same space seemed reserved to the realm of Star Trek's holodeck. It sounded like science-fiction. In some ways it still does.

Furthermore, the era of holographic computing being ushered in by Microsoft, a company that has in recent years been considered by a great many as "uncool," seems a fictional notion indeed. But it's real in all of its ephemeral glory. The next phase of personal computing — holographic computing — is here courtesy of Microsoft.

Additionally, though Microsoft has been criticized for executing poorly in the past, with HoloLens and Windows Holographic, they're taking the time and building the ecosystem to get it right. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, this is a five-year journey which includes an early-2016 release of a $3000 HoloLens developer kit, an initial focus on enterprise and the private sector, culminating with a commercial version in the future. For what will presumably be a refined device and a developed platform for a revolutionary shift in computing, that's not a long wait.

Under the hood

Time flies, and in technology, it's flying faster than ever. Children today are growing up in a world of persistently connected devices, artificially intelligent assistants, screens that beg to be touched and if Microsoft is successful, 'holograms' that will be interacted with as naturally as they interact with the physical world. What makes all of this possible?

Microsoft HoloLens is a head-mounted wearable Windows 10 computer; this is key. It is both untethered and self-contained, and therefore, does not require a PC or phone to operate. It contains both a high-end CPU and GPU. To these Microsoft has added a custom designed holographic processing unit (HPU) which processes terabytes of information about a user's environment, gaze, gestures and voice all in real-time. Besides high definition lenses that provide a compelling visual experience, HoloLens also provides spatial sound so a user can even hear holograms that are behind them.

Simply put, HoloLens and Windows Holographic are, for now, unique in the industry and represent a potential shift in computing akin to what the advent of the iPhone initiated. Chris Capossela, Microsoft's Marketing Officer shared the following regarding the impact of that January 21st HoloLens introduction:

…"we talked a lot about, is this our iPhone-type moment? Meaning you surprise the world with something that's very complete and ready to go at scale and given that this is a brand new platform, this is a new PC…do we do Windows 10 and HoloLens together in one moment or will one overshadow the other?…And now in hindsight it was perfect…If anything HoloLens has gotten much bigger than we intended. It's become humongous without us selling a single unit. We won Time Gadget of the Year!"

As groundbreaking as HoloLens is, it is just part of the story. Windows 10 is the soul of the machine and key to Microsoft's holographic computing platform play.

One of 10

The introduction of HoloLens with Windows 10 was perfect because Microsoft was introducing an entirely new computing platform via Windows Holographic, in addition to the HoloLens hardware that would showcase it. Let's not become so enamored by the impressive hardware that we forget that Windows Holographic is part of Windows 10 and represents Microsoft's way of becoming the world's platform for holographic computing. Kipman explained the breadth of Windows Holographic this way:

Every Windows 10 device has APIs focused on human and environment understanding. Holographic APIs are enabled inside every Windows 10 build, from the little screen to the big screens, to no screens at all. At its core Windows has always been built with an ecosystem of partners. Throughout our history, we have brought new attributes to Windows that empower not only developers but also our device makers to unleash their creativity to the world. Windows Holographic was created from the ground up with that same heritage in mind.

It's a powerful statement. First, it communicates Microsoft's resolve to move the industry to holographic computing. Their goal of 1 billion installs of Windows 10 in two years, (having already achieved 20% of that mark since launching in July) reflects the company's intent to permeate the industry with its "holographic-computing-ready" OS. With a Universal Windows Platform on a billion of the world's PC's, phones, tablets, Xboxes and connected devices boasting holographic APIs, the ubiquity of the platform will be established.

Second, Kipman stressed the legacy of Windows' evolution as a result of the partnerships that consequently helped the company put a PC on virtually every desk. Windows Holographic was designed to take advantage of that successful relationship infrastructure.

Windows holographic was created from the ground up with that same heritage in mind.

Finally, Windows holographic apps will be capable of benefiting from Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform. Developers will be able to create holographic apps from universal apps they've previously written for other Windows devices. Additionally, if the burgeoning activity of the Windows Store continues as the Windows 10 install base grows, increasing numbers of developers may engage the Windows ecosystem. We might today be at the ground level of a revolutionary shift in computing with Windows as the foundation.

What's in store

The advent of Windows 10 was transformative for the Windows Store and Microsoft's ecosystem. The Store saw 2.5 billion visits following Windows 10's launch.

A developer's universal app today can easily become a universal holographic app tomorrow.

Additionally, application usage has grown, and developer revenue has increased fourfold. This growth (opens in new tab) is the momentum the OS heralding Windows Holographic is experiencing. And as previously stated, a developer's universal app today can easily become a universal holographic app tomorrow.

Still, building the foundation for a new way of computing takes time and a calculated rollout. Capossela said that at Microsoft they "felt like we had to build an ecosystem and so we have to go with a slower rollout."

This rollout is multi-faceted. It affords Microsoft the time to nurture and capitalize on both the Store's and ecosystem's growth. Engaged users and developers at the base of a new computing paradigm are essential to a vibrant ecosystem.

Nadella said that the first version of HoloLens is targeted more at developers and enterprise. This smaller initial target allows for a controlled release, closer collaboration and presumably swifter platform and product refinement. This focus doesn't exclude the long-term vision for gaming and other applications. Nadella said that Minecraft was purchased in part because he wanted a hit game for the new medium of mixed-reality.

This structured roll-out also affords Microsoft the time to fortify its position with OEM partners in preparation for the shift. As the industry bemoaned a decline in PC sales Microsoft made the courageous investment to create the OS and hardware that have inspired the industry to adopt the 2-in-1 PC form factor. This bold move, which has made 2-in-1s a growing segment, will likely encourage the trust of OEMs as Microsoft leads the industry into holographic computing. The continued and extended decline in PC sales may also drive manufacturing partners to consider expanding their own line-up into this new market.

As the Surface is the inspiration to the host of Windows 10-powered 2-in-1 computers inundating the market, HoloLens is intended to be the same for the range of Windows 10 holographic computers to come. Nadella articulated it this way:

…we are trying to create new categories like Surface did. Now every OEM has a two-in-one, which I celebrate…We will do HoloLens, and then, since the holographic computing platform is right there in Windows, there will be people who will build holographic computers beyond HoloLens. So I want all of that to happen.

HoloLens is about Microsoft leading the industry to and becoming the platform for holographic computing. And for that, Windows 10 is key.

Virtual fighters

So what of the competition? Most players, like Facebook's Windows-based Oculus Rift (which streams Xbox games and includes a Xbox controller) have gone the route of immersive virtual reality, rather than the mixed-reality of HoloLens. Even HTC's Vive Pre headset, which recently gained a camera for imaging its external environment, is still almost exclusively targeted at VR.

Even Google, which was one of the first onto the wearable headset computing scene with the ill-fated first version of Google Glass felt the need to pull back and reset. It's entirely coincidence that Google's decision came the same week that Microsoft first demoed HoloLens, but it's a testament to the difficulty of wearable computing.

Magic Leap, which secured more than half-a-billion dollars in financing from a group of investors led by Google just three months before the HoloLens announcement, seems to be tackling augmented reality at the same scale as Microsoft. Magic Leap's proprietary mobile wearable is claimed to place "objects indistinguishable from real objects" into the user's field of vision, and their demos certainly look impressive and might be capable of rivaling HoloLens. While we've yet to actually see the hardware or a live demo or real explanation of what Magic Leap intends to offer, Microsoft is publicly on track to bring their revolutionary device and platform to market.

Conceivably by the time rivals leap into the fray with a truly competitive AR device Microsoft will be months or years into partnerships with developers, enterprise, and the private sector. Universal Windows apps that can be easily expanded to accommodate the holographic platform will likely be populating the growing Windows Store.

OEM partners already invested in Windows and excited about what Microsoft inspired with the Surface will likely feel confident about Microsoft's leadership in mixed-reality. The weight of partners that won Microsoft 90% of the PC market and facilitated an industry shift to 2-in-1 PCs is a powerful resource. Additionally, consumers and an industry already impressed by HoloLens may maintain their opinion that the device is simply "cool."

"Coolness" isn't really what we would call a quantifiable variable, but that positive customer perception is an incredibly valuable asset — just ask Apple about the benefits of being cool.

Speaking of Apple, Cupertino has no real skin in the AR game. With its two most recent "major" advancements being an iPad Pro with a keyboard cover and eraser-less pencil and two bigger iPhones, the world's most valuable company's products are lagging behind the innovation of companies like Microsoft. That's not to say that Apple doesn't have the capacity to surprise — this is the company that gave the world the Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, and iPhone, after all. And Apple has a penchant for secrecy, so there's no saying what they've got in their labs. But for the first time in ages it seems like it's Microsoft that has the upper hand in innovation. This is a Microsoft that's revitalized and reengergized like we've never seen before. If holographic computing becomes a real thing in the next several years, it could be Microsoft that is the trend setter for the next tectonic shift in computing.

Where we are headed

Early cell phones were technologically functional, but also hilariously large and weighty. Technically portable, if you will. Their place in everyday life was limited. The current (and likely 2020) design of HoloLens will present users with similar limitations. If you're reading Windows Central, however, you know that cell phones have achieved pocketable dimensions that make them a consistently integral part of our lives. They have not only transcended the limited functionality of cell phones of the 80's and 90's, but they've far surpassed the power of the PC's of that era as well. Technology has a way shrinking and getting more powerful faster than even seems feasible. Consider the fully-functional Light Phone that's small and slim enough to fit into a wallet.

The visor design of HoloLens and future OEM-manufactured Windows holographic devices will likely, in time (and time is critical) progressively give way to designs that look more like traditional eyewear. The technology will progressively become smaller and lighter and more invisible in bulk and interaction.

Additionally, as a Windows 10 computer, HoloLens (and future OEM devices) is capable of doing everything Windows 10 PCs can do out of the box. All Windows apps already run natively in a 2-dimensional environment on the headset. Even Xbox games can find their way onto HoloLens:

Here's how Satya Nadella described how HoloLens fits into Microsoft's ecosystem and vision

…I like to think about Windows 10 as not being bound to any one form factor. What is Alex doing with a HoloLens? It was a Windows 10 Universal App Platform…I have a Band…my phone…Surface…my Surface Hub and I'll have a HoloLens. And that…is all Windows 10. And I'll seamlessly move between all of these. I want the notifications…data and apps to flow between all of these things.

Wearable holographic computers, if one sees them as I believe Microsoft does, can be a user's PC, tablet, television, music player, gaming device, phone (yes the Surface Phone is just a step toward this future) and much more. To get there Microsoft is methodically building the Windows Holographic ecosystem of partners, developers, consumers and more.

Just as Microsoft moved the industry toward 2-in-1s with the Surface; with HoloLens, Windows Holographic and Windows 10 they are moving the industry toward holographic computing. Of course, there are those who won't believe it until they see it.

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!

67 Comments
  • As usual thanks for reading folks! HoloLens and Windows Holographic are a necessary pair in Microsoft's platform play for holographic computing. I can't wait to see the amazing ways developers apply their creativity to the tech. Microsoft seems to have a comprehensive advantage through partnerships, the Windows and growing Windows 10 install base, OEMs and more. What do you guys and gals think? Is Redmond on the right track? Should they do something different? What about Magic Leap; are they a threat? What are your hopes for a consumer version? What's on your mind?
    LET'S TALK!!! :-)
    Don't forget to check this piece out as a Microsoft Office Sway! :-) https://doc.co/wDbWsL
  • The best tech of the century! Would love to follow the advancements and plans it holds for the diverse industries around the world. I'm a student of Architecture and I'm already impressed by the tremendous things it can do.
  • Do not forget we're just 16 years into it... We've got plenty of time to elect what will be best tech of the century, haven't we?
  • I think Microsoft has positioned itself to provide a userbase the ability to do almost anything. The one problem that has always plagued Microsoft is the ability to market their product. Albeit, the Surface brand has beaten that stigma, but even as a fanboy, I am not yet convinced. I think the best thing thay can do is immediately create a need for holographic computing and make it affordable. Go back to grass roots and give consumers the ability to afford it. Put it in their homes. Tell them they need more than 1. Give me a reason why I should buy this and not a new TV or why I really do need HoloLens. If they can achieve this, then the sky's the limit as they say.
  • This is soo awesome and I vant wait to have one of these babies at home. They er coming "SOON" just like windows central windows 10 mobile app ;)
  • 'Use at home' should be the only ideal for now or the near future... I can't imagine a public use of HoloLens.
  • You're missing the point of the device then. This has massive business potential for any company that does any type of design work. 
  • yeah, so maybe just 'Use indoors' is enough lol =p
  • I'm sorry you lack imagination. That must be hard for you.
  • I think these devices will make the kids of this generation more lazier. Gone are the days of playing in the field, hiking and all.
  • Yeah, just like the rest of this partial list of things that make kids lazy and keep them from playing in fields and hiking (and, probably, before that, working in the spinning mill and coal mine) ​TV, radio, comic books, "penny dreadfuls", bicycles, movies, books, cars, motorcycles, soda fountains... (It's really too long a list to actually try and complete since every generation seems to have had a few that they've added to the list although they, personally, had no problem surviving the previous generation's threats.)  
  • Think about multiplayer type games, though. No, not online. I mean in-person type of games. Like Tennis. Your backyard can become a tennis court. Or a basketball court.  Imagine playing an opponent a true holographic 3D game of billiards. That would be cool. If you can afford 2 or 3 HoloLenses, then you can skip having to pay for a tennis court, ping pong table, pool table, foosball table, air hockey  table, basketball court, etc.  How about a nice game of golf in the back yard? Save money on green fees. Like going to the shooting range to get some practice in? Yes, if you like many of these activities, you can save a boatload of money in the long run by investing in hololens.  Imagine a paint-ball game without having to have actual paint-ball guns or actually be hit? The HoloLens units will communicate with each other and let you know when you've been hit or when you've successfully taken someone out.  Those are ways you can get some exercise. If you think your kids aren't getting enough exercise, you can always program the HoloLens to make space monsters start chasing them the next time they put it on. Running away from those monsters for a while will help them get in shape. (Okay, joking here. Please no one actually do this.)
  • Your last lines made me laugh for real!:-)
  • Actually, THAT would be awesome...Interactive Horror films! =D
  • Five Nights At Freddy's: HoloLens Edition
  • @raphdog Great ideas!
  • Totally agree
  • Mixed reality Doom! Microsoft Band tracks your heart rate and feeds back into HoloLens to keep scaring the #$%& out of you. Lol. What do you call a mixed reality FPS? MRS - Mixed Reality Shooter and VRS - Virtual Reality Shooter?
  • ...or maybe it'll make once necessary things more recreational, like that running jazz. idk, just don't be lazy lol =p
  • Didn't know alex invented Microsoft he must be old
  • It might be a ground breaking technology.... But I fear Microsoft might screw it with bad timing.
  • Or a half-baked and behind schedule implementation, which they have a well earned reputation for lately.
  • "half-baked and behind schedule" - So if they ship early and half-baked, then it will be bad. If they delay to add necessary features, then it will be bad. In other words, you will find a way to criticize no matter what happens.
  • They've managed to include both those aspects in nearly every release lately, which makes it hard not to criticize. Especially when what came before it often worked so much better. I know, the fix is coming soon, but that's the other sad, sad joke.
  • In no time Apple will have their own version and call it innovations...
  • And someone will be there to justify the cost of their lame product. Ppl buy things because it's from Apple, that makes no sense at all.
  • No, I think bringing Apple into the conversation and complaining about them makes no sense.
     
  • Comparing and competing is essential and so is the criticism.
  • I've never once seen criticism produce any results...except for maybe massive eye-strain from all the rolling =\
  • Apple have had their fifteen minutes of fame
  • I just works!
  • Apple is skipping this and focusing on autonomous cars.
  • Well if Apple is focusing on automomuos cars based on their iMaps flop! God help iFans!
  • Apple hasn't invented holographic computing yet.  But it's only a matter of time.
  • I don't want to be the party pooper but as of today, HoloLens is going the Kinect way. Fantastic revolution, too expensive, for a limited audience and that is in search of a market. ​Don't get me wrong here. I will probably buy a set when available. But I don't expect HoloLens availablility before Fall 2016 at the earliest (which is why Microsoft planned a Windows 10 RedStone release this fall). And unfortunately, I think the sticker price will be in the 1500$ to 1750$ range.
  • Realistically it will be more expensive than that at first and will not go into the consumer market for several more years.  
  • I agree! HoloLens could easily go the way of Kinects. 
  • In search of a market like the original iPhone? It's a totally new market. While it may be awhile before it hits living rooms in any big way, the enterprise uses are endless, medicine, manufacturing, design, just to name the obvious. Thinking back to the early PC days, they where in business' long before they became common place in the home.
  • Another great piece Jason..!!
    Just give more recognition to HoloLens, and it'll rocket off.
  • Microsoft is truly a ground breaker in Tech. Time will tell.
  • Unfortunately, I think this is another great piece of technology that will be poorly executed by Microsoft.
  • They should stop talking about Windows when mentioning hololens, the name "Windows" is what is uncool about Microsoft, this product has the potential to be amazing, but mentioning it along with Windows 10 all the time will totally turn off the uneducated. I think this hindered phone sales too, sweeping generalisation I realise, but I think if Windows phone had been called something else, it might have done better... Also, confusingly for the public, it was nothing like actual PC Windows when it came out, if anything desktop Windows has become more like the phone OS.
  • "I think if Windows phone had been called something else, it might have done better" I agree. Perhaps something like "Kin" instead.
  • I think this will be revolutionary in my field of work. Computer Aided Design, Building Information Modelling or CAD and BIM if you will. Could care less about it as a consumer product. I don't make money playing games. Other areas like medicine and education will also benefit. I doubt that if your a fry cook at McDonald's it will impact your job. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Hey, stop looking down on "Bürgermeisters". They're the mayor of your Tommy oops towns.
  • At $3000, it's not aimed at consumers.... I would go as high as $500 for this device and THAT IS IF there is tons of software for it....
  • So even if hololens succeed, you'll be able to buy then in 2020 for this price :D
  • So don't buy it then.  Sheesh!
  • One big concern : Will it work with glasses? How comfortable will it be with glasses? Posted from my Moto X Pure Edition via the Windows Central App for Android
  • It works with glasses.
  • It doesn't matter how much the current iteration of "Hololens" costs, or whether it is the perfect form factor. At this point it just matters that the R&D is literal, not smoke and mirrors. Just a few years ago my brother came over to my house and I had recently purchased the FIRST high-definition television he had ever seen. It was a 36" Sony CRT!  (Nothing flat had been invented yet. And the HD revolution hadn't started either. So no Rear-projection or larger than 36" televisions were even part of the consumers imagination) His comments were things like "that is the biggest tv I have ever seen". And "Oh my God I can't believe how perfect that picture is. It's like looking through a window". How absolutely pitiful that big tube would be considered today! I submit that the current Hololens IS that 36" Sony CRT. Holographic computing is coming, ever bit as much as HD was when I brought that anchor home. But like the last comment in Jason's article: Windows Holographic and Windows 10 are moving the industry toward holographic computing. Of course, there are those who won't believe it until they see it. Jason, nicely done. But you interupted my productivity today. Now I am 15 minutes behind schedule.
  • lol, awesome comment =p
  • @snakebitten Great analogy! ;-) And I'm sorry for disrupting you productivity. Lol. See if you had a HoloLens on you could have had the article up in your Field of View, and then dictated what what you to say in comments, all while doing whatever else you needed to do. :-)
  • Touche!  I'll check and see if they will let me expense it!  (based on productivity, of course)  
  • Yet such a monumental achievement in computing will undoubtedly be dumbed down, and down played because apple didn't make it, and because it doesn't have snapchat. This is the aggravating and ignorant world we live in.
    Most people talk far too much about things (like this) they don't understand. Too many people have very selective tunnel vision. And if a new product, or a new OS, or even new "features" don't fit into that narrow view, they **** on it.
  • Well, unfortunately it's only gonna get worse... =[
  • These would be the exact same people who stand in line for days to show their sense of individuality by buying the exact same phone as 200 million Chinese peasants?
  • Finally! An article worthy of Windows Central. These have become so few and far between that I have gone from checking the app every few hours to once a day at most. Kudos to the author, now just get everyone else up to your level. ;)
  • In all fairness, Windows Central is serving more functions than just the publishing of these editorial viewpoints on Microsoft Windows. I get what you mean, and I find these kinds of articles to be my favorite, as well. But I would be very unhappy if you got your way and WC no longer was my go-to source for everything from forums to daily Windows trivia. It's a big giant world out there. Lot's of things going on that WC acts as a portal to. If you were a San Antonio Spurs fan, would you expect ESPN to quit reporting on baseball? :)
  • Thanks for the kudos Kevin but all of us on the WC and Mobile Nations team are just that - a team!:-) We got the newsroom guys that keep the news fresh and flowing. We got folks that rock the "How To's".Which are articles that have a very long life span and value as people adopt MS tools. Fans and early adopters may find them useful now, but those articles have longevity for the person who begins using a feature or tool a months or years down the road. We got the guys that bring the hot game news, reviews and interviews. We have those who write awesome product reviews. We get the great ICYMI articles that sum up the weeks. We get the "From the Editors desk" and so much more! It's quite a buffet and we have a host of great chefs. I'm glad to be one of the cooks! Thanks again man.
  • Take a deep look at project tango I feel it has better potential since it maps entire environment..combine it with vr you littery in another world. Just my thoughts. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Wow! This just makes you realise how powerful the universal windows platform really is that it can stretch even to a holographic computer. I love what Nadella is doing with Microsoft and Windows 10 and honestly I cant wait to see how the future of Microsoft's visions pan out. As usual a fantastic article, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it presents another view of what the future could hold. Cant wait!! Many thanks :)
  • Honestly if Hololens could have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, Crunchyroll, Email, web browsing that would be enough for starters! Other things can come later.
  • This would be excellent for HUD navigation. Or construction. Or repairs, search and rescue, etc.
  • Every successful ground-breaking technology in the past 50 years, starting with Polaroid instant-cameras through video cassette recorders and including online payment, video streaming and even the early Internet itself all have one thing in common.  Before they were accepted by the general public they had gained a lot of market share - and in effect had been proven winners - in the adult sector.  I suspect HoloLens will fit right into that same model.  Just out of curiosity, who holds the copyright on Jessica Rabbit?
  • The one thing that comes to mind with Hololens for retail is Animusic. I could imagine a few people in the room wearing Hololens and playing scores like those from Animusic.
  • Shame it never lived up to  those misleading staged demos. Might become commercial some five years away. By then Occulus Rift,with front cameras (Augmented mod) will have been established, along with Intel Augmeed Reality headsets. Microsoft Bolted too soon on announcing this. They has to prematurely announce last Jan as they were supposed to have announced WM10 features. And we know how that has turned out. Microsoft are simply too late to every party.