I grew up on Microsoft Paint as a PC kid in the 1990s. So when Microsoft showed off a new version of its storied software today, updated to make it easy for anyone to create objects and scenes in 3D, I felt a stab of excitement imagining how my own kids might experiment with these new tools. Microsoft’s insistence that 3D is something new and futuristic aside — 3D graphics have been around for decades and will forever be associated in my mind with terrible '90s web art — Microsoft executives actually made a convincing case that they would be able to breathe new life into a form that never quite caught on with the masses.
3D was highlighted as a core feature of Windows 10 Creator’s suite. Along with Microsoft Paint 3D, the company showed off a way to easily scan a real-world object with a phone so that it could become a 3D file you can manipulate with software. It linked 3D objects to its flagship piece of futurism, the Microsoft HoloLens, which makes sharing and interacting with 3D objects a lot more compelling than viewing them on a two-dimensional screen. And it tied all this in with its most beloved software franchise, Minecraft, which is by its nature about building in 3D, and truly has captivated a generation of kids and parents.
There were mockable moments in the presentation. Microsoft touted the ability to mix and match 3D objects with 2D objects, but the final result of that, a cutout of two sisters hugging superimposed over a spinning 3D sandcastle, is something only Clippy could love. The company also muddied the water by briefly bringing onstage a mysterious VR headset. It wasn’t clear how VR would connect with the world of mixed reality that Microsoft had laid out, and whether or not the 3D tools and environments that seemed like a strong fit for HoloLens and Minecraft would also be something Microsoft would try to work into VR for Windows.
But today’s presentation was less about where we are, and more about where we’re going. Microsoft is making a bet, as it did with its chatbot platform, on where computing is headed. "I’m inspired by the Minecraft generation, who view themselves not as players of a game, but as creators of new worlds," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. "What you saw today was the birth of a new medium. A future where we can move from two dimensional constructs to 3D, from 3D objects to holograms, and from holograms to mixed reality."
This vision for a new world, where ordinary users create and share 3D objects as casually as they share images on Instagram and Snapchat, won’t become a reality right away. Microsoft’s HoloLens hardware is still only available as a very expensive developer kit. Most people own smartphones, but most don’t own VR headsets. And Microsoft didn’t announce plans to sell the smartphone-scanning technology that transformed a real-world sandcastle into a 3D file.
Only a few people are working in the world of right now. Microsoft mentioned nurses who were practicing treatment on 3D models of holographic patients. But as virtual and augmented reality become more mainstream, so too will the sharing of 3D objects online. Startups like Sketchfab are already working to bridge the gap between today’s web and these new computing paradigms. And anyone who has spent time inside program’s like Google’s Tiltbrush or Medium on Oculus knows how compelling the act of creating in three dimensions can be. If you believe in VR, in other words, you believe most people will want to create and consume in 3D.
Imagining the future in order to shape it
Microsoft can’t sell most people the hardware to realize its vision of the future today. But it succeeded in selling a dream for where we’re headed, and planted some seeds to capture that market with its new software. Nadella ended on a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke that sums up what a good tech demo, like today’s event, is about. "The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens." That’s an eloquent way of labeling this 3D push as a beta version, the label tech companies like to lean on when their big ideas get ahead of the products they can move to market.