Microsoft showed off its HoloLens headset on Wednesday, a device that just may win the prize for the least stupid pair of smartglasses launched by a major tech company to date.
It's a dubious honor. But Microsoft ably handled its first reveal of the HoloLens with a mix of modesty, optimism and showmanship. And introducing a promising piece of future technology is pretty important for the company as it looks to make over its image as a stodgy firm that's unable to cope with changes in the industry.
What really worked for Microsoft was the fact that it showed admirable restraint by keeping its pitch for the HoloLens focused. It didn't claim it was a must-have product for everyone, at all times. Instead, Microsoft stuck to specific but relatable examples of when you would want to have holograms overlaid onto your vision, with just a few hints about how it could be useful to the everyday customer. It's the kind of pitch that Apple tends to be good at -- showing exactly how you'll use its products to fix particular problems that everyone has.
For example, when being instructed on how to fix something, or when collaborating on a project that requires everyone to look at -- and possibly edit -- the same thing:
It's also clear from the promotional video that you won't be wearing the HoloLens all the time. That neatly avoids the problem the glasses themselves -- even the slicker prototype versions -- are pretty clunky-looking. The HoloLens doesn't have to look as good as something such as Google Glass, for example, because you aren't asking people to make it a fashion statement by wearing it.
The launch of HoloLens, in fact, was almost completely opposite from the approach that Google took to introduce Glass. Google focused on the grand sweep of the idea first, and on trying to sell Glass as a product for the everyday consumer. Over time, that vision got honed and whittled down to specific uses -- the most promising of which appear to be in the workplace.
To be fair, that made a certain amount of sense for Google, which is a consumer technology company first and has a devoted fanbase of followers. Microsoft's strength lies in the business world with a smaller group of dedicated consumers -- which is why it's probably no coincidence that many of the scenarios shown in its introductory video were in the office.
But business customers alone can't sustain Microsoft forever, hence all the talk from chief executive Satya Nadella Wednesday that focused on getting people to "love" Windows products. That's particularly important for Microsoft looks at its place in the tech world over the next couple of decades, as people shift away from the PC and onto mobile devices.
Winning over niche markets first -- namely the business world and gamers --can lead to wider consumer adoption down the line, said FBR Capital Markets analyst Daniel Ives. "Enterprise is their bread and butter, their backyard," he said. "Now it’s about that [dominance] bleeding over into the consumer world."
Of course, it's too early to declare HoloLens a success -- the product don't even have a release date yet. And even the situations pictured in the video are a little rosy for now. Those who've tried the device seem enthusiastic about the concept but with a healthy dollop of skepticism. Some were very positive about their hands-on sessions -- namely Gizmodo's Sean Hollister and the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo, who both gave the device high praise as a work in progress. But while Manjoo said that while the demos were "highly scripted and completely controlled," he still thought the product was "wondrous."
Others criticized the fact that the HoloLens isn't nearly as immersive as the demo video made it seem, and certainly not as enveloping as the Oculus Rift; it's definitely "augmented reality" rather than virtual reality. PC Gamer's Wes Fenlon explained it like this: "If AR was baseball, HoloLens would basically be hitting the strike zone — but we have a whole lot of vision outside of that zone, and it’s disappointingly limiting to see these “holograms” in such a small portion of our field of view.
Microsoft is probably okay with that criticism -- the company has been clear that it's a prototype device and that they're still figuring out its final form. Which brings us to another point about why Microsoft's introduction to HoloLens was so successful: the company's showing a lot of humility.
"They're owning who they are, and owning some of the mistakes they've made in the past," Ives said. "And they seem to be making sure they correct those mistakes going forward. It's an era of transparency and openness."