Analysis, Companies, Hardware, Microsoft, Virtual Reality (VR)

Is Microsoft HoloLens the Future of Computing?

Since it has been confirmed that the Windows Holographic platform will come baked into every copy of the Windows 10 operating system, Microsoft obviously anticipates the possibility of a future filled with “holographic” computing devices.

So is Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) correct to expect this trend, and – more importantly – should we be happy if it is?

HoloLens joins the recent crew of wearable interfaces, which includes Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Glass and Sony’s not-so-smart-glasses. Some people want to include Oculus Rift in this list, but the Rift is neither augmented reality, nor a computer interface – it is a glamorous virtual reality gaming console, that also happens to be really cool, but doesn’t attempt to function as an interface for everyday computing.

A step forward

Augmented reality devices represent the logical step in a trend that began with the unveiling of the original iPhone in 2007.  Much has been made of the way Apple’s iPhone – and later the iPad – influenced the computing world by creating a vast market for portable smart devices. But equally relevant is an extraordinary paradigm shift caused by these devices with the perfection of one simple element: the touch screen.

Since Douglas Engelbart’s “mother of all demos” in 1968, computer interfaces have been dominated by the ingenious mouse-keyboard combo. For a generation of people who lived before computers, the mouse and keyboard represented the perfect interface: a simple and intuitive way to input commands to a computer using direct mechanical motion and tactile feedback. Typing at a computer wasn’t much different from using a typewriter, and using a mouse must have felt a lot like pulling a lever or turning a steering-wheel to get where one wanted to go.

Most importantly, this interface maintained a clear distinction between the user and the machine: there could not be a less ambiguous boundary than the four corners of a computer monitor, and the pronounced grid of a 1980s keyboard. This distinction was a comfortable one for those accustomed to reading text from the pages of a book, or the folds of a newspaper.

But it also turned out to be an unnecessary one, because computers are not books. The touchscreen was not merely a cool gimmick, but a fundamental change in the way people interacted with their devices. Gone was the distance, or the need for mechanical proxies. Users could now directly manipulate the digital environment by touching it, and interacting with it in a way so intimate that it could arguably be called “magical”.

Since a capacitive touchscreen was included in Apple’s original iPhone, touchscreens have appeared everywhere: tablets, laptops, desktop monitors, televisions, cars, and even refrigerators. It’s a well established fact that a small niche for touchscreens existed before 2007, as exemplified by Microsoft’s Palm PC. But besides being inaccurate and cumbersome, these screens focused on the use of a stylus, and so continued to emphasize the mechanical boundary between machine and user.

Changing paradigms

Google went a step beyond the touchscreen with Glass, by changing the very screen from a physical one to one existing virtually in a user’s line of sight. But this was more of a gimmick than anything significant. Glass still functioned almost exactly like a mobile device. The glass interface was just a screen – a screen constantly floating in front of one’s face, but a screen nevertheless.

HoloLens represents an even more dramatic reduction in the distance between user and interface. By virtually transforming the physical world into a tangible representation of programs and controls, HoloLens is more invasive than glass, which at least preserves the distinction between what is virtual and what is real.

The effect – theoretically, at least – is awesome. What could be cooler than literally stepping into a Martian biome, or the bounds of a video game environment, or to pick up a virtual model and turn it around, all within one’s office?

The question of whether these theoretical features will actually function as intended can be ignored in lieu of the more dramatic question, which is: should this distance be breached in the first place? Digital environments are not realer than the ones in books or other fantasies, which we comfortably consign to the boundaries of our imagination, or pages, or stage, or screen – the boundaries of something.

But should we willingly lie to our senses until they are confused what is actual, and what is virtual? HoloLens is the first time this has actually been attempted, so there are no past failures to learn from, or debates to draw on. This is a question that must be worked out by the consumer, whose answer will ultimately determine the fate of augmented reality, and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

  • Nfnc1234

    I think the title is spot on. HoloLens brings three things uniquely: Hand gesture recognition(if void, gaze are not counted), 3D mapping, and holographic display. Those are three ingredients that make holographic applications possible (a nice read over here: http://windowscomments.com.

  • David Blau

    “But should we willingly lie to our senses until they are confused what is actual, and what is virtual? HoloLens is the first time this has actually been attempted, so there are no past failures to learn from, or debates to draw on.”

    Except that everyone’s ability to process these senses into a cohesive worldview, which is just as necessary to cognitive function, has been undergoing precisely this sort of confusion for millenia. First gradually, then with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, much more rapidly.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation

    I quote: “Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives.”

    What I’m saying is, our own perception of reality is already so distorted by the meanings assigned by society to /what/ we perceive, that changing /how/ we perceive it (even by directly altering the senses) will have very little effect on the ultimate cognitive impact. Everything is already “unreal”, as Baudrillard would say — we lie to our senses and ourselves all the time, that ship has already sailed.

  • Brian

    Yes, I’m ready for it!

  • HoloLens is the new Game Boy! http://imgur.com/gallery/l2He6WM

    • LOL Hololens is different from Oculus. Do you play Minecraft game. I’m not a gaming guy. But now I kind of want to be one after play Minecraft with Hololens. I think Hololens will change the way we play the game like Minecraft.

  • christianh

    And what does MS do with the DESKTOP GPU power we have…?

    Create the ugliest, most ancient looking UI ever…

    • What? Are you talking about the Modern UI (formerly Metro)? If that’s ugly and ancient-looking, then how come absolutely everyone is copying it? Seriously, look at Android Lollipop, it couldn’t look more like Metro if it tried.

      • christianh

        How many 24″ monitors with Visual Studio running full screen are on Android devices…?

        • Sorry, I don’t get you. What has Visual Studio got to do with anything?

          • christianh

            You read by 24″ MONITOR… Modern sucks… I have THREE 1080p+ monitors… Modern SUCKS…

            My desktop GPU can do real 3D, but I get phone graphics…

            NOT…

  • Christopher E. J. Cobb

    I remember using my friends Sony CD Walkman for the first time and I thought how gimmicky. It will never catch on as a Walkman. The CD player was to bulky but the sound was better than my cassette player Walkman. If my pessimism of that new technology was the accepted reality and we didn’t move music to those stupid plastic disks we might not be listening to MP3s on our watches or cell phones until way later in the game. I believe this is the next UI for computers. The people that think Hololens is a gimmick can just sit on the sidelines holding their mouse and feed it cheese.

  • “The touchscreen was not merely a cool gimmick, but a fundamental change in the way people interacted with their devices. Gone was the distance, or the need for mechanical proxies. Users could now directly manipulate the digital environment by touching it, and interacting with it in a way so intimate that it could arguably be called “magical”.” Hardly. I still don’t know anyone who’d rather type on a touchscreen than a computer keyboard, do you? And many touch gestures feel extremely awkward, forced even, where the mechanical equivalent (with a mouse), feels more natural and, therefore, less removed.

    “But should we willingly lie to our senses until they are confused what is actual, and what is virtual?” Haven’t we been doing that since the first movies, or even further back?
    OK, so we can see that the rhetoric in this article is a bit poor but the initial question is still interesting. I believe the answer to it is a resounding “yes, HoloLens is the future of computing.” If it delivers on what we’ve seen so far, there can be no doubt it will revolutionise not just computing, but society as a whole. It’s impact will be much bigger than the iPhone or iPad, which really just hastened processes that were already underway. It’s impact may even rival that of the internet itself when, for the first time, we will be bale to interact with people remotely instead of just interfacing with them. (I’m thinking of the light switch demo, where an electrician in a remote location could draw arrows and circles in a user’s vision to point out parts to someone with no idea about the job they had to do.)

  • accountoti

    Digital glasses have long been considered a futuristic object, unrealistic, but now that dream is becoming a reality, and Microsoft has taken this next step in presenting his glasses augmented reality, remains a knowledge if these glasses will conquer the public.