Yesterday, Microsoft was still a sad sack desperately trying to make up for missing out on the mobile hoopla. Today, the formerly boring office tech supplier got its innovation mojo back in one of the most exciting ways possible.
The change is enough to induce whiplash. Just the same, at its Windows 10 press briefing in Redmond, Wash., Wednesday, the company unleashed a bevy of announcements and demos—the most noteworthy of which revolved around Cortana voice features, gestures and something it calls “Windows Holographic,” a sort of souped-up augmented reality platform. Microsoft’s take puts more realistic 3D images in front of eyeballs along with text, layering them over our view of the real world as seen through its new HoloLens goggles. (To see the product video, scroll down.)
Voice, gestures and wearable face gear are nothing new to the tech scene, but Microsoft’s bold play here certainly is. It’s as if the company, vowing never to miss out on another emerging trend again, flipped a switch to shake up human-to-computer interfaces. When people can talk to their tech, see 3D representations in the air and interact with media or docs by waving their hands, the long-term survival for the keyboard, mouse and monitor suddenly seems precarious.
Microsoft is far from alone in trying to usher in the new golden age of interfaces that Hollywood has been promising for years. Oddly enough, it might even have the best chance of succeeding.
Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now, Cortana has been making its way from frivolous smartphone distraction to a key part of the company’s strategy. The voice feature cements its place now as part of Windows 10.
Cortana, whose name comes from the popular video game Halo, factors heavily in some of Microsoft’s other initiatives—like its partnership with Insteon last year, which promoted Cortana as a way of enabling voice for its smart home. It’s also a main feature of the Microsoft Band, the company’s first foray into wrist gadgets.
Now people will be able to talk to their Windows computers—possibly en masse.
Although desktop PC sales have slumped in recent years, “the U.S. consumer PC market will finally move to positive growth in 2015,” says IDC’s Rajani Singh, senior research analyst for personal computing. The reason: “the slowdown in the tablet market, vendor and OEM efforts to rejuvenate the PC market, the launch of Window 10, and replacement of older PCs,” he said.
Although Apple has increased its share in the last quarter, the lion’s share of computers today are still PCs running Windows. According to NetMarketShare, more than 90% of personal computers currently run Windows, with nearly two-thirds running Windows 7 or 8.
Moving users through the upgrade cycle can be a slow process, but Microsoft wants to fast-track version 7 and 8 users to the new environment. The company announced that Windows 10 upgrades will be free this year for those users. It also made it somewhat irresistible: Microsoft baked its new Windows Holographic into version 10, to give possibly legions of users a taste of the future.
Holla Back, HoloLens
These innovations got their start under former CEO Steve Ballmer, but his successor, Satya Nadella—a man who has proven to be an exciting (though slightly long-winded) speaker—will get the credit. It is under his watch that Microsoft finally trotted out the pet project of chief innovator, Alex Kipman, which was seven years in the making.
The main news isn’t that Microsoft has developed voice, 3D visuals and gesture support. Most major tech companies have done the same. It’s that the Windows maker has tied them together in a way that strikes a chord with our inner child, who still so badly wants to be Iron Man or rock Minority Report-style technology.
This morning, Microsoft made us believe we can, even if we won’t look as slick with fat glasses lashed onto our heads.
But at least the hardware for Windows Holographic would put supposedly realistic 3D imagery in front of our eyes. Meanwhile Cortana would let us speak to conjure information or kick on actions, and gesture support would transform us into conductors of symphonic computing, allowing us to manipulate virtual items in mid-air.
(If you absolutely must have a display, and have plenty of funds, then ponder the Surface Hub, Microsoft’s 84-inch 4K behemoth—a huge, incredibly high-res screen that could cost as much as a car. That’s a guess, though. Microsoft didn’t actually announce pricing or availability.)
This is the future Microsoft thinks it can give us, not in 10 years or five years, but with Windows 10 this year.
The lynchpin for those changes is the HoloLens, a set of goggles with the equivalent of a small computer embedded inside.
The technology could have big implications for pursuits like gaming and entertainment. But Microsoft knows its best chance at reaching the public may lie in workplace applications.
Existing augmented reality devices like Epson Moverio, virtual reality goggles like the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR and other face gear like Google Glass may have the highest utility in enterprise environments—think doctors that can conjure step-by-step procedures hands-free or warehouse workers who can check on supply chain levels by looking at certain beacon points. Educators have been excited about the technology as well, bringing lessons to life in classrooms and museums.
None of those options deliver realistic imagery, though, and they don’t tie into gestures and voice. Microsoft also announced APIs, to give developers a chance to show us what we can really do with this technology.
Voice- and gesture-activated virtual computing environments certainly won’t become mainstream overnight. But it could happen sooner than anyone thought. And surprise, Microsoft, of all companies, could be the one to make it happen.
For a taste of the future it envisions, check out its product video below.
Film publicity photos courtesy of respective companies: Iron Man (Paramount Pictures), The Minority Report (20th Century Fox), Her (Annapurna Pictures), Back to the Future, Part II (Universal Pictures), and Ender’s Game (Summit Entertainment); screenshots of Microsoft press event captured by Stephanie Chan for ReadWrite; all other photos by Adriana for ReadWrite