When Apple created the Apple II it clearly had no idea of the impact it would eventually have on the computing market. It was simply trying to create a better product for hobbyists. When Google fixed search by finding a way to monetise, it they had no idea of how big that would become, and it likely will be years before we fully understand the full impact of the Tesla car effort.
I think the HoloLens that Microsoft showcased at its latest Windows 10 preview has the potential to be just as revolutionary and that folks need to look beyond what it is to what it can become.
Let's talk about that this week.
The Apple II and the danger of disruptive innovation
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who has ever seen an Apple II in a picture let alone seen one in person. Yet the product changed an industry by getting a lot of other people to see computing differently, which lead to freeing up investment and funding start of the companies we know as Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Acer, Asus and others that make up the computing industry today.
Apple benefited from this creation, but I think you can argue that Microsoft benefitted more and other pioneers didn't do as well.
IBM's Simon started the move to smartphones, Phillips actually had the iPhone idea first followed by Palm but neither benefitted from it. Even the core technologies that made Apple and Microsoft came from Xerox PARC who really didn't benefit at all but at least survived the change it helped start.
This suggest that there is always risk in coming up with a revolutionary idea in that someone else may see the potential better than you do as Steve Jobs did with the iPad after seeing Bill Gates' Windows Tablet.
So while I think Microsoft has something amazing with the HoloLens, I also don't think it is thinking big enough, and that someone else that sees what Microsoft doesn't could take this concept and do things that are even more amazing. In short, Microsoft started a race they now lead, but will still have to run really hard so that someone even more creative doesn't take this lead from them.
How HoloLens changes your world
As presented, the HoloLens is pretty incredible. It is a device that couples with eye movement, voice commands and hand gestures and can create holographic images that blend seamlessly with the real world.
You can easily design virtual places and even 3D print things, changing the world around you, first virtually and eventually physically. Even though that is incredible, it's just the tip of the iceberg when you step back and really think about it.
It is the next potential evolution in personal computing and a significant step towards what has been termed the "singularity" when computers and people become so intertwined you can't distinguish between them. Don't worry there is still a long way to go. You aren't waking up as a Borg tomorrow.
The next computing leap
Currently, we mostly connect to our computers through displays and direct them with text. Yes, we use some voice and a few gestures but for the most part we are computing much the way we did 20 years ago. Even with smartphones we are making displays bigger like we did with PCs and using some form of keyboard much of the time and our amazing advancement is that our finger is now our mouse.
Now look at HoloLens. We don't look at the display, the display moves with us and flows around things we otherwise need to see. Rather than a mouse or our finger redundantly pointing at the things we want to interact with, our eyes are the pointer and we can point to both real and virtual objects, something we can't do at all today.
For commands, we switch from keyboards to voice and begin to add gestures (which, by the way, suggests that someone that knows how to do sign language may at some point have a critical computing skill) in free space.
This is much closer human machine integration in that out-of-the-box HoloLens couples far closer to how we instinctively do things than any computer we have ever used before. Finally, we wear it so eventually it will always be with us but always enhancing what we do wherever we are (with the possible exceptions of sleeping and bathing).
Now, as noted, this is very much like the Apple II in that the offerings full capability will likely come with future versions.
The evolution of HoloLens
Over time, I expect the simple hand gestures we start with will switch to sign language and I would expect that some form of sign language currently in existence would, for the sake of time to market, be preferred.
I would expect the display to get added features like the capability to darken to block out bright light or use the camera to enhance hard to see images both in darkness and at distance. I would expect it to increasingly be tied to AI systems that would monitor what you are doing and suggest better alternative actions, perhaps preventing you from doing as many poorly thought out stupid things we all do on a regular basis.
It would, as demonstrated during the launch, help with advice on how to do things, but increasingly that advice would come from centralised expert systems which would be dynamically assigned based on your need and what you were doing.
It would monitor your health and the health of others, suggesting paths away from danger, medical procedures, and connect you with both virtual and real medical help in an emergency. It will show you the potential future of planned developments or the historic past of an area was as you go on tours or explore someplace you've never been before.
It would keep track of names tied to faces and provide information needed to improve relationships and it would analyse body language to warn you of lies and potential hostile risk.
I could go on, likely for several chapters, but the idea of a worn computer that has a near constant visual interface and the capability to change what you see crosses over into the area of magic. It's unlikely that we will realize the true potential of HoloLens for a number of years.
Big challenge for Nadella
I work with a lot of companies including Microsoft and I've seen some amazing things over the years. Generally people get locked into the initial capability of a device and it takes years before they see its true potential. Often to reach that potential some other company advances that idea or someone inside the company leaves to further that idea, which is what happened with the Apple Newton and the Palm Pilot.
I think the Hololens will change computing as we know it, my only question is whether it will be Microsoft or someone else that figures out and executes on the full potential of this product. This may be the biggest challenge for Satya Nadella's Microsoft, well, ever.
[Disclaimer: Microsoft is a client of the author.]
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