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Microsoft’s HoloLens looks better than Google Glass, but can it escape the same fate?

Microsoft pulled a fast one during its Windows 10 event by showing off a prototype of HoloLens, its own take on augmented reality glasses. The device certainly appears more compelling than Google Glass (although far less fashion-conscious), but does that mean it can avoid the same fate?

Where Glass, currently sitting in as close to no-man’s-land as you can get at Google, essentially aimed to be a kind of reality augmenting smartphone screen for your eyes, HoloLens looks to take things a little further.

Rather than merely throwing information up in front of your face, HoloLens will make use of holograms, something which it claims will help you blend the physical and virtual worlds.

It’s therefore a lot closer to virtual reality goggles such as Occulus Rift than it is Glass. Given that it comes from a company the size of Microsoft however, there will inevitably be comparisons.

Before trying to figure out whether those comparisons are justified, it’s worth taking a closer look at the HoloLens technology.

As Engadget points out, the technology appears to be an extension of the RoomAlive tech Microsoft’s shown off previously, albeit not limited to gaming.

In its demo, Microsoft described HoloLens as useful for everything from entertainment to collaboration and innovation. On stage meanwhile Alex Kipman described it as being like a “print preview for 3D printing”

Speaking of collaboration, Microsoft doesn’t exactly have the worst partner for this tech either. As Kipman pointed out on stage, its collaborator for HoloLens — NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — “literally specialises in moonshots.”

It’s about more than just the hardware

That’s a good start, but the techies at Google’s own moonshot division Google X are no slouches either and nothing they or any other division did turned it into the best-seller the Mountain View-based internet giant so clearly hoped it would be.

The biggest problem, of course, was never the hardware. Although in its very early stages, there was at least enough potential for geeky early adopters to buy it in reasonably large numbers.

No, Glass’ real problem was an image one. Despite Google’s best efforts to make Glass seem fashionable, there’s no escaping the fact that it looks dorky.

Then there were people’s fears that Glass users were surreptitiously recording, or taking photos of them, prompting Google to release a guide on how not to be a “glasshole”.

Microsoft seems to have taken those lessons onboard. Just take a look at the promotional video it released for Hololens:

Notice something? Yup, all the people using HoloLens are on their own, in private spaces. It’s a good thing too, because the actual HoloLens unit looks pretty damn bulky and if someone on the street took exception and started beating you over the head with it, you’d really be in trouble.

Still the success of companies like Occulus shows that there is a place for virtual and augmented reality devices, but that place is very much not on the streets, or in a restaurant, or on a train for that matter. Not yet at any rate.

Overcoming a poor track record

You can forgive Google for betting as big as it did on Glass though. When it launched the product, there was still a sense that it could do little wrong. And we bought the hype too, especially when it demonstrated Glass with an extravaganza of skydivers and motorbikers at I/O in 2012. It also had, and continues to have, a reasonably good record when it came to launching physical devices. Sure its Nexus devices have never been great sellers, but they’ve at least informed the design of other Android devices.

Unfortunately, you can’t really say the same for Microsoft. At best its hardware launches have been badly handled, at worst they’ve cost the Redmond giant hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even when the product, like the latest Surface Pro, has been innovative and worthwhile, it’s always had some kind of Achilles Heel, whether that be cost, distribution, or (dare we say) the operating system running on it.

So can HoloLens avoid the same fate as Google Glass? Going by a single product demo is always difficult, but from what we’ve seen, the answer appears to be yes. There is however one very big caveat: Microsoft needs to go beyond innovative launches and build out a strategy that makes HoloLens seem compelling to buyers. Selling it at an affordable price and getting big-name app partners on board from the get-go would be a good start.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More