Is Microsoft Setting HoloLens Up to Fail?

With three virtual reality headsets scheduled to launch in the coming months, 2016 may be the year we look back on as the beginning of the VR revolution. But not if Microsoft gets its way.

Microsoft plans to release HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that’s different enough from the VR competition to stand out. With augmented reality, users can see through the headset to the environment around them. Through the headset, 3D images — holograms — will appear to be right there, in the same room, and able to react to whatever is in the room with you.

Microsoft has just begun taking preorders for HoloLens development editions. These are intended for software developers to purchase so they can create software for the platform. The self-contained devices will cost $3,000 and will ship to developers starting in March.

Now that HoloLens is closer to becoming a real product, the question is whether it will stand a fighting chance against VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. Judging from what we know so far, it’s looking increasingly unlikely.

For starters, $3,000 is a high barrier of entry, even if the final product will cost less for consumers.

Compare that $3,000 price to the first development edition of the Oculus Rift VR headset, which cost only $300. Granted, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because the Oculus Rift requires a powerful PC to run it, while the HoloLens will be fully self-contained. But still, $3,000 is a lot to ask from developers to make software for a device that has yet to prove its viability.

Another problem is the apps themselves. As guideposts for developers, Microsoft has whipped up some software that shows off what the HoloLens is capable of. One is called HoloStudio, a tool to help developers create 3D graphics using gestures, voice, and gaze. Another is an enhanced version of Skype that lets users share holograms with each other while they talk.

Those are all fine and good, but Microsoft is also positioning HoloLens as a gaming machine, so it built three games for developers to try. One, called Fragments, has players use detective skills to solve a crime. Another stars a cartoon mascot named Conker (who you may remember from Conker’s Bad Fur Day), who you’ll control as he runs and jumps around your room. The last game is called RoboRaid, a game about fending off invading aliens that burst through your walls.

Watch any of the videos (including the one for Young Conker above), and you’ll see that there’s just not much to the games. They’re basically tech demos that seem like something you might try for a few minutes and never touch again. I worry that developers won’t be inspired to build full games for HoloLens, particularly if it doesn’t sell well at the consumer level.

While it’s unfair to judge a device based on such a limited selection of software, it’s important to note that no one has made a hugely successful augmented reality game yet, despite numerous attempts. The Nintendo 3DS came with a few AR games, but none of them were very fun. You can find a handful of AR games on iPhone and Android, but none have made much of a splash. Developers can’t seem to figure out how to make AR games compelling, so they’ve largely stopped trying. That may happen with HoloLens too.

If it does, that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for HoloLens. It’s possible that the device will find success in fields like business, design, and medicine. Either way, this technology has a long way to go before it could ever be called a proven success. The one thing Microsoft is surely trying to avoid is a fate similar to the Kinect, Microsoft’s doomed motion controller that never took off with consumers.

At this early stage, I’d bet that VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR will fare much better than HoloLens. Even though the initial VR headsets are pricy, costing between $600 and $800 (Sony hasn’t announced the price of PlayStation VR yet), they’re much cheaper than what it looks like HoloLens will be. And most of the people who have used the VR headsets have come away extremely impressed, while the same can’t be said about HoloLens. Then again, HoloLens is still in the early stages, so Microsoft has plenty of time to prove its worth.

Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed
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