Microsoft HoloLens projects virtual images into your field of view. TED
To hear Apple CEO Tim Cook tell it, augmented reality — the hot new technology for projecting digital images into the real world, Pokémon Go-style — is "a big idea like the smartphone."
But to Alex Kipman, Microsoft Technical Fellow and chief inventor of Microsoft's pioneering augmented reality headset HoloLens, that's underselling it.
Augmented reality and virtual reality technology will have a far bigger impact than smartphones ever did, Kipman told Business Insider in an interview.
"The potential of these devices," he said, is that they could one day "replace your phones, TVs, and all these screens." Once your apps, videos, information, and even social life are projected into your line of sight, you won't need any other screen-based gadgetry. Kipman calls it the "natural conclusion" of mixed reality.
That's a leap forward on par with the advent of internet, which changed how people communicated and did business; the smartphone didn't really do anything new, it just put the internet in your pocket, he says.
But Microsoft, after missing the boat on the mobile market, is now in the enviable position of being one of the leading players in the nascent mixed reality market, thanks to its HoloLens headset.
And Kipman is determined not to squander that early advantage.
Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman using a HoloLens to virtually "holoport" to Mars. TED
While Kipman appreciates the other companies and their work — "we're all birthing a whole ecosystem" — he says Microsoft remains in first place, with the most complete platform out there. Beyond just HoloLens, Microsoft has also been investing in helping its PC manufacturer partners come up with Windows-compatible VR headsets.
Kipman has long been adamant that the HoloLens, currently available to developers for $3,000, will only be released to consumers when it's good and ready, but he says that Microsoft is still setting the pace of innovation.
"HoloLens leads the way," Kipman says.
The Microsoft advantage
Microsoft has something of a history of swinging for the fences and missing. Kipman himself led development of the Microsoft Kinect, which sold about 29 million units before just kind of fading away. But while he says that Microsoft has had its share of "bloody noses" over the years, "they're in the past."
With HoloLens in particular and the overall Windows mixed reality strategy in general, Kipman says, Microsoft has an "authentic structural focus," giving it several key advantages in terms of both technology and how it goes about accomplishing its mission.
For starters, Kipman says that Microsoft boss Satya Nadella is "the most product-driven CEO ever," with the vision and foresight necessary to lead the company into this mixed reality future. It's a critical play for Microsoft, as the continued shrinkage of the PC industry makes this a do-or-die moment for Windows.
Kipman also led development of the Microsoft Kinect. Key Kinect technology later made its way to HoloLens. Flickr
And in terms of the technology, Kipman says that HoloLens is only made possible because Microsoft has been investing in the necessary underpinnings for many years now.
Sensor technology invented for the Kinect made its way into the HoloLens; the Microsoft Surface team helps with design and manufacture of high-end hardware; the Microsoft Azure supercomputing cloud helps power the most immersive holographic apps; Microsoft-owned game studios like Minecraft maker Mojang help make it enjoyable to use; the Windows team handles the operating system, and more examples besides.
"That's the prerequisite to build a HoloLens," Kipman says.
Versus Google and Apple
Not even Microsoft's peers among the largest tech companies have all those resources, Kipman says. Amazon, for instance may have the Amazon Web Services cloud computing platform, but it doesn't have a major operating system, just for starters.
Indeed, Kipman says, Microsoft Windows is a big part of the puzzle. It's a popular, commonly-understood operating system that runs on a wide array of hardware, running the gamut from mega-cheap to ultra-premium. That wide array of options is complemented by the fact that Windows lets anybody, anywhere make software for it.
"There's not a lot of companies that have done that," Kipman says.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella unveiled the HoloLens in 2015, around his one-year anniversary of leading the company. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
So while Apple may make the best hardware, Kipman says, the fact that it maintains such a vice grip on the App Store hurts the ability of developers to experiment. And while Google's Android is a wide-open platform for anybody to build anything, he thinks that Google is far less experienced in terms of high-end hardware.
In the middle, you have Microsoft, which recently unveiled a new line of Windows-compatible virtual reality headsets, starting at a budget $299. Now, Kipman says, Microsoft Windows supports a full range of hardware that goes from the low end, all the way up to the premium $2,999 HoloLens, all compatible with a growing range of Windows software.
The new Acer Windows Mixed Reality Development Edition headset, which as you may guess from the name is only for VR developers. Microsoft
There's a lot of work to be done, Kipman says, starting with making these headsets more comfortable, ensuring that there's lots of great software for them, and even far-future-looking stuff like making it so you can actually feel physical resistance and even temperature from digital objects, so a virtual ski trip might actually feel windy and cold.
More importantly, it's early enough that it's still anyone's game, Kipman says. Having all these advantages "doesn't mean you are going to win, by the way," Kipman says. But if you want to compete with Microsoft, he says, "you better be more focused than we are."