When Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, its new 3D glasses, last week, it released this video of developers singing the technology's praises:
"This is the next generation of computing," one guy says. "This is the next PC."
It's always worth taking a claim like this with a grain of salt. But this one has a good chance of being true.
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he pointed out that great new computing platforms are often defined by revolutionary user interfaces — the mouse in the 1980s, multitouch computing in the 2000s. In each case, users got a new way of interacting with computers that opened up potential applications that wouldn't have been practical otherwise.
So what's the next great computing platform going to be? Several big tech companies are now betting that it will involve some kind of wearable virtual reality experience. Facebook bought Occulus VR, makers of the Rift 3D headset, last year. Google has been working on Glass, and has also invested millions in a VR startup called Magic Leap. Intel is building a line of 3D cameras called RealSense. Sony is working on a gaming headset called Project Morpheus. And now Microsoft has HoloLens.
Products like the Occulus Rift and Project Morpheus completely take over the user's field of vision. That might be good for gaming, but it's going to be a deal-breaker for most other applications. In contrast, HoloLens seamlessly inserts virtual objects into the physical world. That not only makes the device less awkward to use around other people, since you can still see and interact with them. It creates a whole new class of potential applications by essentially turning the real world into a user interface for HoloLens apps.
The success of smartphones and tablets is partly due to their touchscreen interface, but it's also because they're mobile devices with a variety of sensors (cameras, GPS, accelerometer) that allowed them to interact with the physical world in ways that PCs never could. A turn-by-turn direction app isn't very useful on a PC that never leaves your desk.
Similarly, HoloLens has unique capabilities that lets it do things that smartphones and PCs can't. For example, one of Microsoft's demos involves a father walking her daughter through a plumbing project over Skype. The father used his tablet to "draw" arrows in three dimensions to tell the daughter exactly where to put the part. That's made possible by the combination of 3D glasses and a sophisticated understanding of the physical world in front of the user.
It's not hard to think of other ways this could be useful. People who buy goods online will not only be able to see life-size 3D models; they'll be able to place those models in their house. You'll be able to see exactly how that new chair will look next to your existing furniture, and how your bedroom will look with a new paint color. Not only will your cake recipe float in the air over your kitchen counter, but the software may be smart enough to check off each ingredient as you add it to the bowl and warn you if you forget one. And devices like HoloLens could have huge implications for home entertainment.
These applications are still several years away, at least. Microsoft is being vague about when HoloLens will be available to the public, and there's no guarantee that it will be a hit. Some other company might take the same basic idea and execute it better. But there's every reason to think that HoloLens or something like it will be a big, important computing platform in the next decade.