The “Launch” of Holo Lens

Summer 2015: Microsoft wowed the world with demos of its Holo Lens. An amazing prototype Augmented Reality system that frankly blew the socks off anything like it at that time. I sat and watched it live at Microsoft’s worldwide partner conference in Orlando in awe. Two years later, where is it? Commercially launched in November 2016 at a bargain £2,719-£4,529 (depending on version), I can tell you exactly where it is – in the sea.

Sales are so bad they did an interview with The Inquirer to confirm any had been sold at all. No specifics are given, only that sales are in the order of thousands of units. Holo Lens’ “commercial lead” oddly countered that announcement with the view that they didn’t need any more sales… Okay commercial lead who doesn’t need to do any commercials… Nice work if you can find it. I reckon if the parents and grandparents of every Microsoft employee involved in the development, marketing and sales of the Holo Lens project bought one, they could have reached that same milestone.

So, what’s going on? Is there some clever happenings behind the scenes? Well maybe. You never can write off Microsoft. But I can tell you what’s pretty weird… The initial version of the Holo Lens was a ‘developer edition’.

At first glance, you might think Holo Lens is a development sandbox type product. And once developers are making awesome software for Holo Lens, its utility will become clear to all, and that will herald Microsoft’s big opportunity to make major in-roads into the market. After all, from the very beginning in the mid 70s Microsoft forged its path by appealing to developers, so this approach kind of makes sense.

But I can tell you what developers, or specifically the bosses of developers, like though: a market! An audience of people who will buy and consume their products. Developers are going to need to be charging a pretty high premium for software that’s only being shipped to thousands of potential consumers.

Did Microsoft actually learn anything from Windows Phone?

The Launch of ARKit

5 June 2017: Apple first announces ARKit, a new toolkit for building augmented reality apps, will be deployed with iOS11.

Twenty days later, there’s already a video on YouTube demoing ARKit’s functionality with Minecraft – A MICROSOFT-OWNED PRODUCT.

Loads of other examples of ARKit emerged online…

Sir Peter Jackson and the team at Wingnut AR wowed the world with this incredible short feature piece…

People have already found some excellent real-life utility, with this augmented tape measure

Some French folks at Nedd created an inter-dimensional portal

And Asher Vo wants you to better design your living space by turning your house into the SIMS house, apparently

These were all released in June. Within a month of ARKit’s announcement.

Roll forward to the 19th September, 3 months after its initial announcement, Apple rolls out ARKit through iOS11 update. By 3rd October two weeks later iOS11 and ARKit have been installed on approximately 400 million devices. Almost overnight iOS has become the largest augmented reality platform in the world.

But hey that’s just a theoretical roll-out, and these are just demos right, no one’s going to jump into making apps for ARKit – just like they didn’t for Holo Lens, right? 

You might think that, but alas Apple has really got its shit together for ARKit. Out of the box it’s compatible with Unity (the largest 3D/gaming engine in the world), Unreal Engine (one of the next largest), and SceneKit. So there are already tens of thousands of people working with these technologies. Packaging your existing work into ARKit to enable iPhone & iPad AR compatibility is a piece of cake, relatively speaking.

Augmented reality is about to explode.

Holo Lens vs ARKit – Handheld AR vs Glasses AR – Apples vs Oranges?

It’s perhaps a little unfair to directly compare the work of Holo Lens and ARKit. They are totally different projects. Apple is utilising the hardware it already owns. Microsoft is creating new hardware from scratch, and MS is no doubt working on a lot of software behind the scenes in the process. Phone-based AR may be significantly easier to master than glasses/goggle-based AR, and perhaps glasses-based AR really is the future. Apple may have gone for the quick win of a smart ambitious software strategy, while Microsoft might be playing the long game for ultimate domination. Well, maybe that’s all true, but I’m still not so sure Microsoft have got this right…

Apple have built a software platform that already works on two industry leading product platforms, iPhones and iPads. They’ve already got hundreds of millions of consumers, tens-if-not-hundreds of thousands of potential AR developers, the world’s largest App Store, and arguably the most advanced consumer hardware business in the world. If Apple did decide that glasses-AR is actually the future, and phones and tablets are only stepping stones (I don’t think that’s true for what it’s worth), then Apple is now the company with the perfect strategic positioning to deliver glasses-based AR too.

They have all the ingredients. What does Microsoft have? An expensive hardware prototype with a relatively small number of developers, very few consumers, and in a space where Holo Lens’ actual hardware technology could easily become out of date in no time at all. At best Holo Lens is headed for some seriously challenging times in terms of cost competition. There are already low-spec low-price mixed reality glasses coming to market from all the usual suspects.

I’ve been really impressed with Microsoft’s cloud strategy, and their unified vision of Azure, Windows 10 and Office 365 is going to be a world-beater in the enterprise space. But in augmented reality right now – my opinion is that Microsoft just got their asses handed to them by Apple.

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