Microsoft has enlisted the likes of Volvo, Lowes, Japan Airlines and ThyssenKrupp to test its HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headset, underscoring the software giant’s early success in wooing enterprises. Given Microsoft's prowess in fostering dominant platforms such as Windows and Office and its global reach you could argue that the software giant has the best shot at establishing the enterprise standard in AR.
Gartner analyst Brian Blau, who tracks the AR/VR market, is taking a cautious view. He says that while Microsoft’s clout in business software give it an advantage it’s too early to proclaim a leader. Microsoft’s AR device, currently available to developers and businesses, costs $3,000, has some technical limitations and faces competition from a number of tech heavyweights that are building wearable AR and virtual reality ecosystems.
HoloLens, which vies with Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Sony Playstation VR and dozens of others in the high-stakes market for immersive headsets, uses cameras, air gestures, gaze, voice, and sound to navigate holograms that adapt to the physical surroundings, enabling people to access information and complete tasks hands-free.
HoloLens lures many business takers
Attracted by the opportunity to enable employees to access information and complete tasks hands-free, several companies are building HoloLens applications. A handful include the following:
- Thyssenkrupp elevator service technicians use HoloLens to triage service requests ahead of maintenance visits and getting hands-free remote guidance when on site. Technicians access Skype on HoloLens to call subject matter experts and share holographic instructions In trials, Thyssenkrupp says HoloLens has reduced the average length of it service calls by four times.
- Volvo Cars envisions consumers using HoloLens to customize their cars in a virtual showroom. “Imagine using mixed reality to choose the type of car you want – to explore the colors, rims, or get a better understanding of the features, services and options available,” says Björn Annwall, Volvo’s senior vice president of marketing, sales and service. He says that HoloLens could open up new sales channels by allowing dealers to take a car configurator to pop-up stores or malls.
- Japan Airlines (JAL) has developed two proof-of-concept programs to train engine mechanics and flight crew trainees. Thanks to the 3D capabilities in HoloLens mechanics “can study and be trained just as if they were working on the actual engine or cockpit,” placing their hands on virtual engines and parts, says Koji Hayamizu, senior director of the planning group for JAL’s products and service administration department. Using HoloLens, flight crew trainees access a detailed hologram that will display cockpit devices and switches that they can operate themselves, with visual and voice guidance.
- Lowe’s customers are using HoloLensto view a holographic representation of a new kitchen and customize design options for kitchen cabinetry, countertops, appliances and other home features. They may also share their designs online. “A miniature hologram kitchen allows for a bird’s eye perspective of the kitchen,” says Microsoft’s Erickson. In-store designers and friends can view what the customer is seeing and changing in real time through a hand-held Surface tablet.
- Microsoft also is working with AECOM and Trimble Navigation to allow architects and engineers to view building construction and engineering schemas in 3D. AECOM says engineers and designers in London, Hong Kong and Denver, are exploring 3D buildings as if they were physical models on a table.
Healthy skepticism abounds
Such commercial scenarios underscore why Microsoft is confident in its ability to make HoloLens the VR standard for commercial industry. And the currently modest market for AR/VR devices is set to boom. Forrester Research estimates that 52million units of VR head-mounted displays will be used by enterprises and by consumers use in the U.S. by 2020.
But analysts aren’t ready to proclaim HoloLens as the go-to device for enterprises.
Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder says that while HoloLens is an important device, it has several limitations, including its $3,000 price tag. It’s also heavy – you won’t want to wear it for more than two hours. It also has a narrow field of view and can’t be used outside in bright light.
However, Gownder expects Windows Holographic will eventually lead to new form factors. “I would be looking to new Windows Holographic devices from Microsoft's partners that solve those problems,” Gownder says.
Gartner’s Blau says a new collaboration between Microsoft and Intel raises questions about HoloLens’ future. Last month, Intel unveiled Project Alloy, the chipmaker’s bid to create an all-in-one VR display that is similar to HoloLens. Microsoft agreed to optimize Windows content and experiences in Intel’s Alloy device and the two companies will help foster a range of AR/VR devices for business and consumer markets.
“We don’t know if that is the future of HoloLens, if HoloLens gets merged into whatever Project Alloy is,” Blau says. Microsoft is expected to unveil more details about its collaboration with Intel, as well as OEM partnerships, at WinHEC in December.
What Blau is certain of is that AR/VR leaders will include global ecosystem vendors, such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Samsung, which have cultivated platforms in mobile, cloud, social and other key technology categories. “The same [ecosystem phenomenon] is going to happen in immersive technology,” Blau says.
Microsoft, which, added mobile device management, Azure Active Directory support, BitLocker data encryption and VPN remote access, to make HoloLens more appealing to enterprises, remains confident in its position.
“HoloLens is on a multi-year journey and we are currently focused on developers and enterprise scenarios,” Scott Erickson, general manager of Microsoft HoloLens, tells CIO.com via email.