If Oculus is the poster child for virtual reality, HoloLens is augmented reality's biggest champion. That's not to say there aren't other big, or even more impressive, technologies out there but, like Oculus, Microsoft got in the game early with a headset that promised us the future.
That was in 2015, and Microsoft director Greg Sullivan says it was "not a coincidence" that the reveal happened at Microsoft's Windows 10 event. "At the time we didn't make it too big of a deal but we did say HoloLens is a Windows 10 PC you wear on your head," he tells Wareable. "We believe fundamentally that it represents the future of computing".
Microsoft has never seen HoloLens as just an accessory to the PC, but where computing goes next. But perhaps disappointing to those salivating at the thought of Minority Report's AR room, it's targeting HoloLens at enterprise first. That's unsurprising for a company that has, aside from Xbox, always been primarily business-faced, but it's here that AR in its current form has proven utility.
"What Japan Airlines learned was that if they got some HoloLens units and do some work, and put the digital version in the HoloLens, they can ship the HoloLens around the world and scale that knowledge," says Sullivan. "They don't have to rip off the jet of an airplane." In business and enterprise, AR can quickly pay for itself, and it will let it thrive until the fun, everyday consumer applications are ready. And don't worry, they will come.
"The commercial benefit is where the near term benefit of HoloLens is," says Sullivan. "You'll see HoloLens applications become more and more consumer". He talks of a spectrum, with HoloLens for enterprise at one end, moving through consumer apps to the HMDs at the other side, Microsoft's 'Mixed Reality' headsets.
Our main gripe with Microsoft's definition of mixed reality is that when it comes to the HMDs from the likes of Acer, it's really just VR - at least in the demos we've tried - and Sullivan acknowledges this.
"We have some degree of representation," he adds, saying that things like hand controller tracking and even just knowing where the walls of your living room are - those, to Microsoft, are what it considers components of "mixed reality". Still, it's not really MR in the way we know it, but it's a term that's anticipating the future where Microsoft has an entire platform with varying levels of immersion.
"We originally referred to the software element as Windows Holographic and... we thought about the mixed reality continuum, which is why we don't make a distinction [any more]," says Sullivan. "We thought about them holistically but it occurred to us that HoloLens is a singular device made my Microsoft, the first self-contained holographic computer, and the holographic aspect of this is unique. So we think of HoloLens as a device that runs the Windows software, but that mixed reality is the term that refers to the platform."
The end game is interoperability across an entire platform, with HoloLens and the HMDs merging - one person wearing an Acer HMD, the other wearing a HoloLens, but both can interact. "Today if you buy a Rift and I buy a Vive, we can connect to Steam and run the same game, but the odds are that we couldn't play against each other," says Sullivan. "Our approach says we're going to. If you have an Acer headset and I have a Dell headset, we can all play a multiplayer experience in mixed reality."
"One of my favorite things I've seen was a demonstration in which multiple participants - some wearing a HoloLens, some wearing a HMD - shared an experience, solving a puzzle together, and were using a multiplayer app. The same app, in mixed reality, on devices not just from different manufacturers but different types, but they sat on this MR continuum."
This means of course that Microsoft and Apple are going head-to-head once again, as both are starting to build out AR/VR ecosystems. Apple's ARKit will put augmented reality into the pockets of millions of existing devices, and possibly pave the way for, one day, a pair of Apple glasses. But Microsoft is already on the face, with an lineup of affordable Mixed Reality headsets set to hit the market starting this year.
It's hard to compare HoloLens and the iPhone, but these are also just small parts of two larger platforms that are set to grow massively in the next few years. The race is definitely on.
How we test