When we think of groundbreaking technology announcements -- the sort of things that make you sit back and reflect on just how far we've come as a species of innovators -- it's easy to jump to the likes of Apple, Google and Tesla before you even consider Microsoft. After all, the possibilities of something like self-driving cars, or a modular cellphone are inherently more interesting than yet another version of Windows. But with this week's surprising announcement of Project HoloLens, futuristic shades that paint your world with realistic holograms, and its accompanying Windows Holographic platform, Microsoft proved that it too can leave us dumbfounded with a new gadget that puts all of our science fiction fantasies just within reach. The only problem? Microsoft now needs to focus hard on not screwing it up. And given its history, there's no guarantee it won't.
Judging from the reactions of lucky folks who were able to test it out, including Engadget's VR and gaming guru Ben Gilbert, HoloLens' "mixed reality" experience actually delivers. But those testers also pointed out that the demo hardware was far from finished -- it was apparently bulky, uncomfortable and featured several exposed circuit boards. They weren't the slick shades Microsoft was showing off onstage (though the company claims some of those polished prototypes were also working). Of course, that's to be expected for early demos, but it's also not a great sign for anyone hoping to see HoloLens this year. At this point, Microsoft is saying it'll be available in the "Windows 10 timeframe," which could mean anything from right after the operating system's release to years from now.
And don't forget the last time Microsoft wowed us with a surprise hardware announcement, we got the Surface, a laptop/tablet hybrid meant to show off the possibilities of Windows 8. It was a great idea in theory, and it proved Microsoft could actually build a high-end laptop with features we've never seen before entirely on its own. But the Surface RT was, to put it nicely, a fiery train wreck of a device that I wanted to catapult out the window (Engadget's review was a tad more kind). It couldn't run traditional Windows apps, and it was also hindered at the time by a thin selection of Windows 8 apps. Several Surface devices later, Microsoft finally crafted the ideal hybrid laptop with the Surface Pro 3, but by that point it was kind of a hard sell. And it didn't help that, even in 2014, Windows 8 still didn't have much of an app ecosystem to convince people they actually needed it in tablet form.
Then there's Kinect (developed by Microsoft's Alex Kipman, just like Project HoloLens), which also gives us some hints at how this holographic experiment might turn out. As an add-on for the Xbox 360, the Kinect motion-sensing camera was a tremendous hit -- to the point where it earned the Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling consumer electronics device. Indeed, the Kinect was so successful that Microsoft made it the centerpiece of the Xbox One, which was one of the reasons it ended up retailing for $500 at launch while the PlayStation 4 debuted at $400. Well, that turned out to be a horrible mistake. Sony pretty much ate Microsoft's lunch for much of 2014, and it wasn't until MS offered a cheaper, Kinect-less Xbox One that sales finally began to pick up (buoyed by some attractive holiday sales).
What went wrong? While the Xbox One's revamped Kinect was incredibly powerful, with a 1080p camera for video chat and far more sophisticated motion tracking than its predecessor, most developers just never used it. And there didn't seem to be that much demand for Skyping from your living room, either. The Xbox One's Kinect ended up being more of an expensive anchor than something that would truly differentiate it from the PlayStation 4. And, let's face it: There was a tremendous amount of hubris involved with making the Kinect such an integral part of the Xbox One in the first place. It was almost as if Microsoft thought that it would be an instant success, since the first Kinect sold so well, and in the process failed to make it a compelling device for developers. As great as Windows Holographic looks, it could be in danger of crashing and burning if Microsoft doesn't take the time to get developers on board and give consumers compelling reasons to use it.
And since Project HoloLens comes out of Microsoft Research, it's worth remembering all the other cool stuff we've seen from that division that never made it consumers. Things like RoomAlive, which turns your living room into virtual game level using projectors and an array of Kinect sensors, and a gaze-directed wheelchair are surprisingly innovative, but we're unlikely to see them outside of MS Research's walls anytime soon. And let's not forget the ill-fated Courier (RIP), which was killed to make way for Windows 8's tablet focus. It's not that there's anything wrong with focusing heavily on research -- it's just sometimes hard to take the division's innovations seriously when so little of it has made it into products you can actually use.
While I'm still hesitant to get too excited, at this point Project HoloLens seems to be on the right track. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wouldn't be so quick to use the technology for visualizing the surface of Mars if it didn't have some faith that Microsoft would deliver a final product. And Microsoft honestly needs HoloLens to succeed if it wants to compete with virtual reality offerings like the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus, not to mention Magic Leap, the secretive augmented reality startup that's received over $500 million from Google (and also looks to be relying on futuristic glasses). It's also worth noting that Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, seems genuinely gung-ho about reshaping how Microsoft works, which means there's less of a chance that HoloLens will die on the vine. Take the Minecraft acquisition, for example, which seemed to come out of the blue last year, but now makes complete sense when applied to HoloLens. Nadella also deserves credit for making the company's long-held dream of universal apps, as well as a Windows platform that truly scales across different devices, a reality.
Even if we don't get the official HoloLens and Windows Holographic launch soon, I hope Microsoft finds a way to prove that it's more than just a tech demo by the end of the year. Shipping solid products, and not just talking about their potential for greatness, has been the key to Apple's success over the past few decades. And while we haven't been as excited about Apple's announcements lately, that's still a lesson Microsoft needs to learn.