Forget Laptops, Headtops Are the Future
Throw out your mouse. Torch your touch screen. As soon as next year, you'll be able to use an augmented-reality headset as your primary PC, running Windows apps that float in front of your face and that you control with your hands and voice.
Today at Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2016, Microsoft's Terry Myerson announced that next year a major update to Windows 10 will give anyone with a compatible headset the ability to run the Windows Holographic Shell with both 3D and traditional 2D apps.
Developers will have to build 3D apps to enable rich experiences, like looking at a working solar system in your living room, but users don't need to wait for a whole new software ecosystem. Windows Holographic will let them project their favorite current-day software onto the walls, the air and the furniture.
Multitasking on Steroids
Right now, I love connecting my laptop to two external full-HD monitors so I can have more screen real estate for multitasking. But what if I could use my entire office, even the furniture, as a desktop that holds dozens of windows? I'd probably retire my laptop for good.
In a demo video that Microsoft released, a woman wearing a generic-looking headset browses the web in Edge browser on one side of the room, then turns her gaze to a floating Outlook email on another side. Icons for other apps such as Skype sit on a table in front of her.
We don't know for sure yet whether every present-day windowed app will run as 2D in Holo, but it looks like you'll be able to use a lot of them. Perhaps they'll need to be Universal Apps, a new kind of program that was introduced with Windows 10. However, I'm hoping that even the command-line programs will make the cut. Why should you have to take your headset off, even to run a batch file?
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How You'll Work in Windows Holographic
We also can't tell exactly how you'll interact with 2D apps in the Holo UI. In the video, the woman uses what looks like a remote control to scroll through information in her web browser and uses her actual hands to play with a 3D, virtual dog.
However, if you're going to do any kind of work, you'll probably need a keyboard for typing. That keyboard could be virtual, but I think that, for the foreseeable future, most people will prefer having some kind of tactile feedback. In five or 10 years, perhaps you will get the tactile feedback from VR gloves, but that's not coming anytime soon. You could dictate all your documents, but talking your computer through a 1,000-word report is more than a little awkward.
The only consumer who can afford a HoloLens is Bill Gates, and he probably already got one for free.
The High Price of Headsets
The $64,000 question is whether everyday people will be able to have these amazing holographic experiences. The Windows 10 update will undoubtedly be free and will be capable of running on fairly pedestrian PCs. At IDF, Myerson showed that a $600 Intel Skull Canyon NUC mini PC, which has integrated graphics, was capable of running Holo at 90 fps.
However, we don't know what the necessary headsets will cost. Right now, the only two shipping products that can support Windows Holographic apps are the $3,000 Microsoft HoloLens and the $799 HTC Vive, which requires at least a $1,000 PC. Because it can go wireless, the HoloLens is clearly the better of the two, but the only consumer who can afford one is Bill Gates, and he probably already got one for free.
Computers moved from the desk to the lap. Now they're going to your head.
Could Project Alloy Make AR Affordable?
At IDF, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced Project Alloy, a new VR/AR headset reference design that sounds like it's at least as good as HoloLens. The new device features dual RealSense cameras and can track both the room around you and your hands, without any additional sensors. It is completely wireless, battery-powered and, in a demo, looked pretty lightweight.
Intel isn't going to make or sell Project Alloy, just share the reference design with manufacturers so that OEMs can build their own headsets based on it. Having lots of different companies making their own devices should drive prices down, but we have no idea what a reasonably priced Alloy headset will cost.
In order to really replace most consumer PCs, a fully functional wireless headset should cost under $600 and include everything you need to run Windows Holographic. What are the chances we'll get anywhere near that price range in 2017? Today, the $599 Oculus Rift requires a PC and doesn't have the cameras needed to run Windows Holographic, but it's made by only one company. When Acer, Asus, Lenovo and Dell all start making their own headsets, the prices will drop, but how fast is anyone's guess.
The Bottom Line
Computers started in giant rooms filled with vacuum tubes. Over the years, the machines moved to your desk, your lap and your pocket. Now they're going right to your head.
Because it's built on the most popular OS in the world, Windows Holographic is the perfect platform to usher in this next age of computing, the era of augmented reality. Running a Holographic UI could mark a bigger change in how people work and play than the advent of smartphones or the internet … as long as they can afford it.