This article originally appeared in the March edition of our quarterly magazine. To get the full experience, you can read the issue online here, or subscribe to receive a physical copy here.
Within the space of one week in January, Google shuffled its Glass project out of the spotlight, retiring the current model with no hint of when a replacement would materialise, while Microsoft added some dazzle to its Windows 10 announcement by unveiling the HoloLens. With so many major manufacturers now working on headsets for virtual reality, augmented reality and every other kind of reality you could ask for, has its time finally come?
VR headsets have been in existence for over 50 years, and while we’ve come a long way from the first devices, which were so heavy they had to be hung from the ceiling, the technology has never truly broken through. Microsoft’s HoloLens, a ‘mixed reality’ headset that projects holographic imagery over your surroundings, aims to break that trend.
Using the holographic display, the device aims to blur virtual reality, augmented reality and the physical world in new ways, laying 3D graphics over real world objects. The HoloLens certainly made for an impressive presentation, but for the moment, we’ve had very little in the way of concrete details about what we can expect from the Microsoft headset.
The presentation at Microsoft’s Windows 10 launch split its time between consumer applications for the device, like holographic TV screens, Skype video chats and games that transform living rooms into Minecraft landscapes, and enterprise solutions. The ability to model objects in holographic form before sending them to a 3D printer was one of the most impressive applications in the latter camp.
However, much of the presentation was made up of pre-rendered videos about how transformative the technology would be, rather than any real insight into when we can expect to see it released, or how it will work with existing hardware and software. One of the few solid details we did get was that NASA has been collaborating with Microsoft during HoloLens’ two-year development period and will be using it this summer to control rovers on Mars, which at least sells the technology’s space-age concept.
We’ll have to wait for Microsoft’s developer conference, Build, at the end of April to find out more, and potentially get the first reports on what it’s like to experience the HoloLens from members of the public. For now, the critical consensus seems to echo the reception received by another of Microsoft’s ‘ground-breaking’ technologies, the Kinect. While the HoloLens may prove extremely useful in research, technical and enterprise environments, it’s unlikely that the technology will transform the lives of the average consumer.
While Microsoft is just entering the headset market, Facebook-owned Oculus has been operating there since 2012, when the prototype of its Rift VR headset was unveiled at E3. At the start of this year, the company unveiled the latest iteration of its Rift device, the Crescent Bay, at CES 2015, and outlined its plans for the immediate future.
The latest Oculus software adds spatial 3D audio to the mix, enabling users to pinpoint sounds above, below and around them in full 3D, amplifying the experience. The Crescent Bay also improves the head-tracking capability, supposedly eliminating the lag that plagued earlier models and invoked feelings of nausea among some users.
Oculus has hinted that it hopes to have a consumer model ready this year, but isn’t making any promises, and at the moment the use cases for the Rift are thin on the ground. So far, the company has concentrated on a VR display, with little integration of input technology beyond what a standard computer provides. Most of the consumer software designed using its SDK has followed suit, focusing on ‘virtual reality experiences’ with only limited support for games.
Enterprise applications have been largely been limited to virtual test drives and similar small-scale promotions, begging the question of who is the Rift aimed at. While the company has been pushing forward in the entertainment world, having recently opened a virtual reality film studio with a slate of short interactive films planned, it remains to be seen if a consumer model will be anything more than an expensive gadget for wealthy tech-heads.
Google Glass was certainly the most market-tested of the AR headsets on the market, but with the Explorer program ended and Glass placed under the control of Nest CEO Tony Fadell while it undergoes its nebulous next stage of development, where does that leave Google in this market?
The answer may not come from its Glass team, but from an independent startup it has been supporting. Last October, Google was among the lead investors in a $542m (£361m) round of funding for Magic Leap, a virtual and augmented reality company. Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and apps at Google joined the firm’s board of directors and there were rumours that the investment came after a failed acquisition bid by Google.
Recent patent applications by Magic Leap have hinted at the direction the company is taking, and it seems like Google may be developing the company into the natural successor to Google Glass. Magic Leap is apparently working on a headset that would project directly onto user’s retinas, enabling it to fill entire rooms with digital images and accommodating a wealth of applications, similar to the HoloLens.
Control would be achieved through a number of physical objects used as totems by the headset. For example, a menu could be controlled with a charm necklace, with each charm associated with a particular app, or a six-sided die where each face triggered a different program. The patent applications even looked into marketing opportunities, with cereal mascots leaping from shelves as you shopped to compete for your attention.
While the technology behind all three of these systems is incredible, there will no doubt be a long teething period between the concepts we’ve seen and the arrival of polished, consumer-ready hardware. But perhaps the more important question to consider is whether or not the public will ever truly embrace augmented and virtual reality.
AR and VR headsets are all about getting rid of the last bit of distance between the physical and digital worlds. Perhaps the lesson of Google Glass’ poor reception and VR’s 50 years hoping for mainstream acceptance is that we simply don’t want technology to become that integrated into our lives.