HoloLens vs Glass vs Oculus: Three Reasons Microsoft's Headset Is Poised to Succeed
On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled a sneak peak at Windows 10, along with several reasons to believe the company has been refreshed and reinvigorated under its new CEO Satya Nadella. One of those reasons is the Microsoft HoloLens.
"Welcome to Windows Holographic"
In a move reminiscent of the Jobs-era Apple, Microsoft showed off an early prototype of a stand-alone Windows 10 headset that uses holography with voice and gesture controls to bring an augmented reality Windows 10 interface into the home and office.
Even still in its prototype phase, the HoloLens holds a lot of promise for industrial, home and entertainment applications. NASA wants to use the HoloLens ASAP for its next missions and Minecraft fans can't wait to build worlds in their living rooms.
The HoloLens is not only another impressive buzz-worthy wearable, it's different than the smartglasses or VR headsets you've seen before -- in ways that makes the HoloLens poised to make it to market faster and to be embraced by consumers with far fewer bumps in the road.
1. Building Holograms Is Faster than Building Worlds
The HoloLens isn't as fully immersive an experience compared to virtual reality headsets like the Oculus, according to early hands-on reviews. But from the standpoint of building a new software ecosystem, that's a virtue.
Indeed, Microsoft specifically mentioned that the device would run the sort of Windows 10 apps you'd expect on the computer or phone, just with a holographic UI; it's an extension of Microsoft's "Universal Apps" initiative and "Windows on every screen" mantra.
While porting Minecraft from the computer screen into holographic projections is obviously more development-intensive than, say, from PC to tablet, the HoloLens is ultimately positioned to have more (and a wider variety of) discrete applications ready-to-go at launch (whenever that is) than the Oculus -- whose immersive VR basically requires world building if it's ever going to be more than a gaming device.
2. It's a Computer, Not a Peripheral
Microsoft billed the HoloLens as a standalone computing device, so technically it's not actually another pair of "smartglasses," the way the term is usually used. It's self-contained: It has no wires, doesn't need a connection to a smartphone or PC and will work without a keyboard or mouse.
This is both a strength and a potential problem. Currently, it's a clunky device. Reviewer Kif Leswing at GigaOm mentioned having to wear the "Holographic Processing Unit," slightly smaller than a Mac Mini, around his neck during previews, and a wire for power was attached. But it's obviously in early stages and not ready for consumers for about another year.
But when it is, the hardest hump for curious consumers to get over will undoubtedly be the price. A Surface Pro 3 runs about $800; how much more will a Windows 10 computer that produces augmented reality holograms cost? Who's ready to take that leap?
On the other hand, it won't be just a peripheral that needs an expensive computer or premium smartphone to work at all, the way both Oculus and Google Glass are designed at the moment. If there's a full enough app ecosystem available (see point 1), it's easy to see venturesome early adopters choosing the HoloLens as their secondary computer.
The HoloLens might even eventually be an entry-point to coax some well-off, curious Apple users to switch to Windows 10. But again, a lot of that depends on developments that will take place this year, most importantly, price point.
3. It's Not a Public Nuisance
More and more, it seems the next generation of computing will rest firmly over the eyes. Which is why it's ironic that the biggest obstacle to the VR/AR revolution has been perception problems.
This point is aimed squarely at Google Glass, the device that -- still in its early days, as Google always cautioned -- quickly spawned a new derisive term for its beta testers, "Glassholes." It's also the device that Google coincidently took off the market for a full redesign this week.
As I've previously noted, a big problem with the public's perception of Google Glass was the way Google chose to run its Explorer program (and who it chose to preview the devices), which was more of a shortsighted -- excuse the pun -- PR mistake than anything else.(Photo : Flickr: aaron_anderer)
But it's also a fundamental problem with Glass's public, always on, nature.
After seeing mounting public disapproval of Glass and its Explorers (especially concerning the privacy of those around Glass wearers) Google's response was to protest that Glass essentially adds no additional functions to what smartphones were already capable of. Casinos banning it? Well, you're not allowed to video record the craps table with a smartphone either. The possibility of Glass porn creeping you out? There's an app for that on smartphones, as well.
First of all, the "nothing new" argument doesn't make much of a selling point for a $1,500 device.
But more importantly, what Google didn't understand is that the public space and social norms are still adjusting to the smartphone. It's a slow, individual and collective restructuring of expectations and codes of conduct that's still obviously underway -- plain to see for anyone who's ever been to a bar and with a table full of people all silently looking down at their glowing screens. An omnipresent version of that strapped to your head only fundamentally challenges the same slowly evolving norms to the nth degree.
The HoloLens, like Oculus, completely avoids that problem because it's designed as a computer you use at home or in your office, rather than in public, everywhere and all the time. Sure, its first incarnation will likely be a big clunky thing you wear over your face like you're in an 80s sci-fi movie. But that stigma won't be a problem in the privacy of your own home, and the privacy concerns of others won't come into question at all.
And unlike Oculus, using the HoloLens won't be as "jarring" for the timid as entering an entirely fabricated 3D world (though personally I'm ready for that shock any time), which makes wider adoption by the general consumer all the more likely.
Theory vs. Practice
If the Google Glass Explorer program has taught technology enthusiasts anything, it's the old lesson that you won't fully know what to expect until a new device makes it to the public. And that goes doubly when we're talking about fundamentally new ways of interacting with computers -- all of which, we should remember, are still in prototype phase.
But if there's one takeaway from the unveiling of the HoloLens, it's that Microsoft will have a bigger place than anyone expected in the unfolding of the next phase of computing. Which, under Nadella, is a good thing.
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