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Why Surface Hub is more interesting than HoloLens

Mike Elgan | Jan. 27, 2015
By the time Microsoft ships their augmented reality headset, it will be an also-ran banality. Their re-invention of "desktop" computing is what really matters.

Microsoft had an unusually kick-ass event this week. They trotted out the next version of Windows, which is called Windows 10.

The OS looks like a winner. (No word on what happened to "Windows 9" -- my guess is that it wouldn't have gone over big in the German market. Windows? Nein!)

The company focused on compelling integrations between desktop and mobile versions of Windows, as well as integrations between Windows 10 and Xbox One.

They trotted out a compelling new browser, code-named "Spartan."

But the clear hit was an augmented-reality system called HoloLens. (HoloLens looks like the virtual reality glasses depicted in Back to the Future II. The "future" in that movie was the year 2015!)

When you see the HoloLens video Microsoft produced, you can see why everyone was dazzled. Especially the press.

The Verge called HoloLens "intriguing." Ars Technica called it "magical." Gizmodo called it "incredible."

The experience was all these things. However, it's not all that interesting as a product. And the reason is that it's not a product. Not even close. Microsoft's HoloLens may be three, four or five years out. We don't know.

HoloLens is a research product. Microsoft has been developing stunning research projects like this for 20 years. I've seen Microsoft Research text-to-speech technology that was perfect, and could be spoken in anyone's voice. The demo did various celebrities. I've seen Microsoft Research projects that used cameras to create real-time animated avatars to replace video chats. I've seen Microsoft research that included a self-learning, artificial intelligence system that mapped dictionaries to understand the connections between words and concepts and thereby "understand" the world. And all this was 15 years ago.

In the past, they never showed off such amazing projects in public, nor did these projects move on to become products available to consumers.

What's different now is that CEO Satya Nadella has decided to boost Microsoft's excitement factor by showing one of their killer research projects at a major event. But there's no evidence -- zero! -- that Microsoft has figured out how to get their great research into shipping products.

By the time HoloLens does become a shipping product, such technology will be a commonplace banality. Dozens or perhaps hundreds of companies, universities and software developers are working on exactly this kind of augmented reality system, including a well-funded startup called Magic Leap, which is almost certainly far ahead of Microsoft.

If I had to, I'd bet that HoloLens will be the "Zune" of augmented reality systems -- nice, but far too little, too late.

Meanwhile, Microsoft demonstrated something else that was truly revolutionary.

Why Surface Hub was the real star of the show


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