Huge surprise announcements are exceedingly rare in 2015, a nearly impossible task to accomplish in an era where social media and an unmatched voraciousness for information often overwhelms even the tightest security measures and non-disclosure agreements (I’m still blown away that aerial drone surveillance to look into closed Hollywood sets are already spreading in use). This atmosphere of early leaks and speculation makes the recent announcement of Microsoft HoloLens all the more impressive in its reveal at the recent Windows 10 presentation in its enormous ambition and scope.
Microsoft describes the technology with the specific term of holographic computing, a classification that distinguishes it from the growing field of virtual reality which continues to grow in prevalence in the mind share of digital experience enthusiasts as well as trade shows such as CES. The combination of 3D digital elements, increasingly app centric Microsoft software ecosystem and the focus on complementary rather than replacement content in relation to our physical reality has a lot in common with the original vision for Google Glass or noted futurist author William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy of books about the evolution of blending the barriers between reality and fiction.
Augmented reality has some meaningful challenges that differ from virtual reality, current computing or other digital media interactions over the history of computing. The human-computer interaction form of hand gestures in physical space to manipulate free floating as well as fixed position augmentations can bring a higher level immersion to games that the Kinect and NFC devices are creating a limited but growing appetite for. There is a palpable excitement on my part for playing mech combat simulators in a simulated 3D cockpit while actually seeing myself as the pilot, sports titles with floating playbooks, strategy/RPG titles on top of a real wooden table and many more opportunities that are meaningfully differentiated from full virtual reality.
Microsoft has a huge opportunity as well as a daunting challenge in creating and enforcing design standards that ensure the effective implementation of visual signifiers, audio cues and (initially simulated) tactile feedback for interaction with HoloLens projected images. The free floating display panels will need to flow around physical objects to avoid unsightly clipping in an unnatural manner and the additive components in the demonstrations such as the motorcycle body redesign will have to snap correctly onto the base physical object to avoid an uncanny valley type of negatively disruptive visual feedback for the user.
I have excitement for the various virtual reality sets marching towards a consumer release such as the Oculus VR and Sony’s Project Morpheus prototype, but the concept of closing myself off from reality entirely while immersed in a digital experience is a limited use scenario. The compartmentalized experience does not work for in-person social gatherings, whereas the amalgam of the actual and virtual worlds with HoloLens can facilitate shared 3D interaction without blocking out friends and family; combined with the underrated Kinect camera accessory and the low latency cloud services infrastructure of Azure, Microsoft has an opportunity to disrupt the way we play and think about the future of gaming as well as digital media interaction overall.