Sunday 11 December 2016

Microsoft sees bright future in fusing real and virtual worlds

With Windows no longer a future-proof bet after 30 years, the firm has high hopes for its HoloLens headset, writes Technology Editor Adrian Weckler

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

There isn’t yet a timeline for a consumer release of the Microsoft HoloLens headset
There isn’t yet a timeline for a consumer release of the Microsoft HoloLens headset

In a large, glowing room deep within downtown San Francisco's Moscone Centre, 100 begoggled men and women swipe, pinch and stab at invisible objects they think they see in front of them. Then they start ducking and jumping as they hurl unseen missiles at neighbours.

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These people aren't crazy, nor are they cut off in some virtual world. I know because I am one of them.

As part of a battalion of developers, executives and some press, I am creating and deploying holograms, 3D objects that I can shape, control and even weaponise. My tools are a bunch of powerful PCs and Microsoft's HoloLens headset, an 'augmented reality' device that fuses your real world surroundings with virtual objects that you can interact with.

This session is the hottest ticket at Microsoft's annual 'Build' event, a conference attended by over 5,000 software developers, strategists and futurologists.

The company that is still most associated with Office software, Windows and corporate IT systems is trying hard to unlock new technologies that could give it a front-row seat to the computing platforms of the near future.

Over three intensive days last week, the software giant unveiled new efforts to get on top of voice control, artificial intelligence, online robots and augmented reality.

It has to do this, because the core of what has made it successful for the past 30 years - operating systems on personal computers - is no longer a future-proof bet. So will Microsoft successfully move beyond the company tethered to Office software, Windows and Xboxes? The market likes what it's hearing; Microsoft shares rose last week before, during and after the conference. Here's some of what it was reacting to.

HoloLens

It looks like Microsoft has a potential hit on its hands here. Its 'augmented reality' headset, HoloLens, lets you see virtual things as holograms. It differs from virtual reality in that it incorporates your actual environment: the virtual things you see appear as an artificial overlay in front of you. It has obvious applications in industrial sectors such as manufacturing, education and training. The technology is just about ready to go. A developers' kit is now available (for €2,500). But it's proving to be in heavy demand.

Already, a queue of large manufacturers and car makers are making and testing applications with the device.

There isn't yet a timeline for a consumer release, as Microsoft wants there to be enough apps and content out there before it launches to a mass market. "This is a multiple year project," said Scott Erickson, Microsoft's marketing boss for new devices. "We see this as a potential major line of new business for Microsoft. In terms of the timing, we want to see what applications are built with this."

HoloLens still has a lot to do to. So far, there's not much available for it: if you bought one, you'd run out of things to do with it fairly quickly. There are technical limitations too. The biggest restriction I noticed was the field of view, which is very narrow. This means it only works for the space directly in front of you and not in your peripheral vision (unlike VR).

Mobile

Microsoft skipped almost all mention of one its biggest challenges: mobile. As its Windows Phone platform continues to sink in market share against Android and iOS (from a high of 7pc, it's now under 5pc and falling fast), it appears to have fallen off the company's priority list.

"There's no lack of recognition to realise how important that form factor is, but for Microsoft with Windows and for our platform it's the wrong place for us to lead," said Terry Myerson, Microsoft's VP for Windows and Devices.

If that wasn't enough to give an idea of Microsoft's cooling attitude toward making its own phones, Myerson spelled it out clearly.

"If you wanted to reach a lot of phone customers, Windows Phone isn't the way to do it," he said. "If you want to reach a lot of Windows customers, then this is the largest install base of nine to 30-inch screens. If you wanted to do new and exciting things, then the Xbox and HoloLens is the place to have a discussion. We're committed to that four-inch screen, there will be a time for it to be our focus. But right now, it's part of the family but not the core where I hope to generate developer interest over the next year."

This is tantamount to an admission of marginalisation. Can anyone imagine a senior executive from Google or Apple saying something like this about their own respective ecosystems?

Maybe Microsoft is now learning to live with the limitations of Windows Phone and focusing on bigger ecosystem issues. The market doesn't seem to mind: it may be perfectly content with the software giant's mobile strategy.

Voice control

Microsoft is putting a lot of effort into voice control becoming a main part of how we control gadgets in future. This is happening through its voice command system, Cortana.

It announced deeper integration of Cortana into almost every part of its product ecosystem, including search, Windows 10 and, soon, Xbox. It is even working on fusing the voice control system with online service chatbots for customer service situations.

But the jury is still out on the basic idea of voice control as a command platform. Nevertheless, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said that over five billion questions have been asked of Cortana.

For us in Ireland, Cortana's cutting edge won't be seen for a while: we're not one of the 13 countries Microsoft is focusing on. Don't judge Microsoft harshly on this. It has a huge job on its hands with voice control. In a country like the UK, it has to deal with a Glasgow accent alongside a Cockney, Geordie and Scouse accent. It has similar challenges in other countries.

Artificial Intelligence

Microsoft spent a lot of time showcasing some of the artificial intelligence applications it wants to make part of our everyday lives. In particular, it demonstrated how online bots could dominate customer service in the future.

These new bots will be capable of integration into a number of platforms, including email, the web, Slack, Skype and Telegram.

But there was another angle to Microsoft's framing of artificial intelligence. Satya Nadella spent a surprising amount of time raising issues around machine ethics.

"All technology that we built has to be more inclusive and respectful," he said. "We want to build technology that gets the best of humanity and not the worst. Ultimately it is not going to be about man versus machine. It is going to be about man with machines."

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