It's been almost a year since we first learned about Microsoft's HoloLens, the experimental augmented (actually, Microsoft prefers "mixed") reality headset that can run Minecraft, reconstruct Mars, and take Skype calls. It doesn't do these things flawlessly, but after months of tight secrecy, we're slowly getting a better look at what the technology is capable of. Applications are currently open for development kits, which will be shipping next year. And Microsoft is getting more comfortable with publicity — unlike my first experience with HoloLens, the team didn't confiscate all my electronics when I tried out its new Volvo showroom yesterday.
After my demo, I got a few minutes with Scott Erickson, senior director of the HoloLens program. We spoke about where he stands on the HoloLens development kit's $3,000 price tag, the difference between mixed and augmented reality, and why HoloLens beats both virtual reality and Google Glass.
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Adi Robertson: What kind of Volvo showroom interactions could you see in the future, besides customizing and changing the car?
Scott Erickson: You've got the simple experience of changing colors and trim options, which is hugely important for customers. But you can imagine sitting in the cockpit of the car and seeing what it looks like, and how it feels, and how the different trim options change. Or using the technology of HoloLens — like the Volvo experience showed — to see how the sensors work, or what it would look like in a driving scenario. Things that you would normally not see with a human eye, but that we can demonstrate and teach.
Say you have a showroom with something like the HTC Vive. It lets you walk around a space, you can see things in a reasonably accurate scale, you can interact with them, and you have a really wide field of view — you can see everything at once. What's the advantage of the HoloLens?
"You didn't have to worry about — where am I going? Am I running into a table?"
One of the major advantages there is that you're not going to run into anything. As you were walking around with the [showroom] guide downstairs, first of all, you could both have a shared experience. So she was seeing the same thing you were seeing from her perspective. The other one is that you didn't have to worry about — where am I going? Am I running into a table? You just knew to go toward that table or to go towards that couch, and that isn't something you can really do with virtual reality.
We call that mixed reality, the ability to put holograms in the world around you, but we're not taking you out of your real world. We're keeping you in the world and making it better by using holograms.
So is the difference between augmented and mixed reality that augmented reality is like a HUD overlay and mixed reality attaches things to a physical environment?
Exactly. Virtual [reality] is a complete fake world, augmented blocks your view, mixed allows you to see the world and to overlay — I don't want to say augment — but to overlay different holographic elements in it. So I think it takes the best of both sides and maybe creates a new category.
How many applications for development kits have you taken?
We've had a really good uptake. We're not sharing numbers today, but we're very very happy with the numbers. The interest in the HoloLens since we announced it on January 21st of this year has been — I mean, the phone doesn't stop ringing.
What's the reasoning behind the $3,000 price point? Why not take applications and give a limited number away for free, like with the recent academic contest?
You have to keep in mind that HoloLens is a fully untethered computer. So it's got processing power, it has optics, it has batteries. It's not a peripheral. It's not like some VR solutions, where you would have to then tie it into a high-powered and expensive computer as well. It's all right here, contained. So the amount of computing power and the amount of technology that's in there, as a development edition — this is what we found was the right price.
"We want to make sure that when people get it, they're developing on it."
How selective is the application process?
We're not really talking details about that. We want to make sure that people are truly developers. We know a lot of people are excited about the device, but we want to make sure that when people get it, they're developing on it. And so we'll take a look. It's a very lightweight application, we talk about what programming languages you're used to, or what your experience with AR, VR, 3D is, and we'll do some checking on that. But it's a pretty open application.
Is the development kit price point reflective of what consumers could see?
It's hard to say. Again, it's hard to predict the future. This is the development edition, the first version. We will definitely take a look and see what the market says to us.
I'm curious how high you think people are willing to go for this.
What are your thoughts?
I mean, they didn't go for a $1,500 Google Glass.
Do you have thoughts of why?
I respect Glass as a piece of technology, but I was so disappointed when I put it on — that it was this tiny square and was very translucent. So HoloLens solves at least one of those things very well.
"You have to keep in mind that HoloLens is a fully untethered computer."
I think that's one of the key benefits of mixed reality, of this fully untethered Windows 10 PC that's on your head. It's not augmented reality like the example you just used. It's mixed reality that allows you to do all these types of things that are far more useful, far more productive, than something like the product you mentioned.
A lot of people in the VR world say that there's a future where it merges with AR. How do you think that will work?
It's called HoloLens!
You can't get the same kind of full immersion that people talk about with the Oculus Rift, though.
I think for virtual reality there are great experiences for gaming or very intensive things, where you can be seated or you don't have to worry about moving around. It is good for certain things. It's one of the great examples of why we partnered with Oculus on the Xbox side for the controllers and for really immersive gaming. It's wonderful. But for the use cases like you saw today, the ability to walk around, to overlay holographic information and make it contextual to physical objects that are with you in the space and interact and collaborate, that's really where mixed reality is the winner.
Is there any kind of crossover between the Rift and HoloLens?
We have a great partnership with Oculus. I mean, obviously we have the announcements we've made with the Xbox team. They have demoed, we've had them here, we've talked to them. Again, it's an exciting set of categories for virtual reality, mixed reality, augmented reality. It is a very exciting time for the industry. But no announcements on any of that.