The concept of virtual reality (VR) has been fueling imaginations for decades — at least as far back as 1956 when an American filmmaker turned inventor named Morton Heilig began designing multisensory virtual experiences.
But even the most promising applications of VR to date have had limited commercial success — raising doubts about the real world potential for computer-simulated environments that replicate a presence in real or imagined worlds.
Stay Here, Go There
Many inventors, business owners and enterprises have dabbled in VR, including Jaron Lanier, who formed VPL Research in 1985 when he lost his job at Atari. Though Lanier advanced the technology of VR and popularized the term virtual reality, his company folded in 1990.
Sega, a video game maker, made headlines with the announcement of a VR Headset in 1991. It revealed the device to the public at the Consumer Electronics Association's global electronics and technology tradeshow in Las Vegas in 1991. However, it only made its way to arcades and not the home market. Nintendo, Sega's long-time rival, released the Virtual Boy console in 1995. But consumers complained about its awkward design — and blamed the fact that the console could only depict red and black for headaches and dizziness..
Recent players in the VR business include Google, which recently recently ended its Google Glass experiment, Facebook, which purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion last year and Sony, which last year announced Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4.
Now Microsoft has entered the fray with HoloLens, an advanced holographic computing platform, enabled by Windows 10. The HoloLens VR headset promises to "transform your world with holograms" that integrate with your physical places, spaces and things.
C|NET described HoloLens as "a sleek, futuristic headset with transparent lenses. You can see the world around you, but suddenly that world is transformed -- with 3D objects floating in midair, virtual screens on the wall and your living room covered in virtual characters running amok." Microsoft, it continued, "is not trying to transport you to a different world, but rather bring the wonders of a computer directly to the one you're living in. Microsoft is overlaying images and objects onto our living rooms."
There have been mixed reactions from CEOs of several tech companies. Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, a pioneer in collaborative cloud publishing, noted that the most interesting thing is that Microsoft is pushing for a single strategy and trying to integrate the tablet, phone and PC into one system. It's also recognized "the operating system is irrelevant. The fact that they’re giving it away [says this]. Apple did it first and now Microsoft is doing it,” he said.
With many people carrying multiple devices around, the all-in-one solution MacInnis is referencing could also benefit app developers and software developers by pushing the envelope on their innovation and accelerating the adaptation of graphics from high-powered desktop PCs to mobile devices.
Others, such as Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox, had a more cautious reaction to Microsoft's new device, calling it "more of a science project" than an actual product. "Who knows where it’ll end up commercially? All the big companies are trying to push the envelope. But it’s great to see (Microsoft CEO) Satya (Nadella) get back to Microsoft’s roots and focus on making users happy,” he said.
Trip Hawkins, CEO of If You Can and the founder of Electronic Arts, was not impressed. “In a word, 'no.' Nothing lasts forever, and even big corporations prove the general rule that nobody gets a second act...consider that major inventions are rare, and dominant products that become standards are even scarcer. Given the speed of technology change and the number of rivals competing for the next big thing, wouldn't it be a statistical oddity if the same company got more than one chance?” he said.
Hawkins' comments point to plenty of market competition in the years to come — even though most of these devices are years away from being brought to market.
How About Consumers?
Consumers could potentially save money if Microsoft rolls the PC, tablet and smartphone into one device. But probably not at first. Odds are the price will start high, limiting initial use to early adopters, those who are comfortable (and financially secure enough) to buy products at launch.
We envisioned a world where technology could become more personal—where it could adapt to the natural ways we communicate, learn, and create. Where our digital lives would seamlessly connect with real life,” Microsoft noted on the HoloLens website. “There isn’t a screen to touch or a mouse to click. Use gestures to create, shape, and size holograms.”
This could mean that the success of the HoloLens could drive down the prices of PC, smartphone and tablet devices, which will be in greater supply if the production of these devices continues well after (and if) the HoloLens establishes itself as the prime player in the VR market.
Gamers will also likely be affected. While previous VR gaming devices have been failures due to technical limitations, gamers now can take even custom desktop PC experience on the go. “To me, there's not a successful consumer device on the planet where gaming is not a primary app category on the thing, and I think HoloLens will work out the same way, and that gaming will be important," said Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft's Xbox division.
It's Early Days
The HoloLens seems like a device with a lot of potential in both the consumer and business markets. However, it may be a while before it hits the market and a lot can change between now and its commercial release. We'll keep you updated on its progress. We're as eager as you to see if Microsoft can successfully "break down the walls between technology and people."