The biggest breakthrough in computing of the last five years is coming from Microsoft. Yes, Microsoft! This was a company that until recently was thought to be washed up, losing relevance and essentially defunct. But now they have dished up a vision for the future of computing so compelling that it makes my mouth water. Under the guidance of new CEO, Satya Nadella, Microsoft is ushering in a breathtaking new way to interact with digital content that they have called HoloLens. And it's a very big deal. When you see it, you feel like you fell into the pages of a science fiction novel. Yet you will probably be able to buy one in the next 12 months. It blurs the lines between the physical and digital worlds and immerses you in your digital content in a way that's not been seen before.
Microsoft HoloLens is to augmented reality what Apple's iPhone was to Multi-touch. In the coming few years augmented reality will have a profound impact on the way we interact with computing. As much as touch did in the last decade. Developers are already salivating at the possibilities. And rightly so.
This ain't no Google Glass
According to many, Google Glass was perhaps always destined to failure. The first generation product probably failed for a couple of reasons: 1. the usage model was all wrong, and 2. the (wildly noble) effort was just a couple of years before the technology was ready to make it all work well. Google's biggest problem may have been that their vision for how Google Glass would be used was fundamentally flawed. They saw it as an all-day device that you'd wear with you everywhere. Google Glass and restrooms obviously don't mix well. And the whole "glasshole" phenomenon would imply that head-mounted cameras aren't welcome in many other locales either. A new technology that breaks social contracts so blatantly is usually doomed.
By contrast, Microsoft sees HoloLens as an occasional device that you wear while indoors...either in your home or at your place of business. You put it on to accomplish a task, to get access to information in new ways, or to communicate with others. (And you take it off when you go to the bathroom). The technology they have built into HoloLens is top notch, state-of-the-art stuff. Plenty of computational oomph, and lots of cameras and other sensors needed to enable it to accurately graft digital content onto surfaces in your environment. The demo video Microsoft released recently is compelling and feels like Sci-Fi. Yet here we are. People who have tried it says it works well, and the possibilities it offers are tremendous.
Computers are coming closer to our brains
In the mid-2000's, Multi-touch interfaces brought us closer to computing and bridged a divide between the physical and digital worlds. Suddenly w were able to manipulate digital content with our fingers and computing became much more natural and intuitive. This breakthrough now makes computing accessible to humans before they can even walk.
Augmented reality and Multitouch are strongly related. They are both milestones along the way as computing comes closer and closer to our brains. Computing is getting closer to our nerve endings...for touch those nerve endings are in the tips of our fingers, and with augmented reality we are talking about our optic nerves.
Computers used to be giant machines that filled rooms at academic or research institutions. They were the province of the few. In the 80's and 90's they invaded our homes, packaged inside ugly grey boxes. The Millennium came and suddenly we were folding computers up under our arms and taking them to Starbucks. And now, billions of people have powerful computers that go everywhere with them inside their pockets and purses.
HoloLens, and devices like it, will allow us to blur the distinction between the physical and the digital world. They will bring digital content into our vision system in a whole new way. We may end up with a world with less screens in it (probably a good thing) and instead apply augmented reality glasses to give us as many digital screens as we need, sized to whatever size we want, placed wherever we want. The live demo Microsoft did at Build 2015 illustrates this idea nicely. It will enable developers to make digital content and information take on apparently physical form. Check out their neat weather app....an app now looks like a physical object taking up space in your home or office.
Microsoft isn't the only augmented reality game in town with HoloLens. Last year Google dropped $542 million on an investment in secretive startup, Magic Leap. Their technology is supposedly more advanced, but far from ready to market. You can check out their fun (and mildly violent) demo video below:
Augmented reality is a technology that has long been discussed, but it finally seems ready for prime time. And it's only going to get better as Moore's Law shrinks computers, boost battery life, and improves graphics capabilities. Expect an array of new applications that make digital information now seem to have a physical presence. People will use this technology to create, and design in a much more natural way. And it will make for a great training and simulation tool...
It feels like a while since technology has amazed me. I was in the audience when Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone. I felt it then. I feel it now. Microsoft Hololens has my heart. I love the scale of the ambition and the vision they have brought. Now, let's hope they don't screw it up. Under the steady, watchful eye of Satya Nadella, I'm optimistic. If they can deliver a HoloLens that's affordable, comfortable to wear, and works as advertised, Microsoft will have a real winner.
Whatever your business, Microsoft HoloLens, and the other implementations that follow it, will change the way you work, create, consume, and live.
It feels good to be excited again.