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Microsoft Surface Pro 3 heads to NFL sidelines this year, and HoloLens could be next

Microsoft's NFL plans continue to extend on the field, and on Xbox One and Windows 10. We took a look at what's on its way this season.

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The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in its NFL form, with updated features like multicolor annotation. Scott Stein/CNET

Microsoft's had a year under its belt deploying Surface tablets to NFL sidelines, but the Microsoft-NFL partnership is only growing in 2015. And Microsoft doesn't just want to work with Surface tablets: augmented reality via HoloLens could be next.

HoloLens -- Microsoft's wild headset that makes hologram-like images feel juxtaposed into actual reality -- is already being "worked on with the NFL," said Jeff Tran, who as director of Sports and Alliances within the Windows devices group is in charge of this NFL partnership.

Several NFL teams are already exploring virtual reality training systems, but augmented reality could offer some compelling twists. Yes, it could be used for 3D tabletop play analysis like Microsoft's demo of Hololens Minecraft, said Tran. But it could also end up being explored for fans. "What if you're checking out stats and all of a sudden Russell Wilson jumps at you out of the TV? I'll leave it at that."

In the meantime, Microsoft still has some interesting plays for the coming season, on actual sidelines and via the Xbox and Windows 10. The Surface Pro 2 tablets that ended up seeing NFL action all of last season are being replaced by new weather-ready Surface Pro 3 models: they have bigger screens and are lighter to hold. Not much else has changed, but the software running on these tablets will allow for more images on-screen, multiple colors for play mark-ups, and a whiteboard mode for scribbling out ideas between plays.

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Using the Surface Pro 3 as a whiteboard for play illustration. Scott Stein/CNET

Microsoft and the NFL will also be exploring use of video replays on the tablets during the preseason, allowing coaches to zoom and even annotate the videos using the stylus. But video replays still won't be tablet-viewable during the games that count. Not this year, anyway.

NFL on Xbox One and Windows 10: aiming to be a one-stop hub

Microsoft's also got a new version of its Xbox One NFL app, and it's making its way to Windows 10 as well in late August. Like last year's app, the Xbox One experience aims to fold live TV fed in through HDMI-in with streaming video, fantasy football stats, and highlights during games. Some of these NFL features require subscriptions to NFL Sunday Ticket or NFL Redzone. The NFL is also launching a $9.99 per month Game Pass service, replacing Game Rewind from last year and offering up Hard Knocks and other shows. The point being: you can watch all this on Xbox One via the app, but you'll have to pay for a lot of it. But everyone will still be able to get game stats, fantasy stats, and game highlights for free.

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Next Gen Stats: looks like a video game, but uses real player motion tracking. Microsoft

But the most interesting new feature is Next Gen Stats, which takes advantage of new motion tracker chips embedded in player uniforms during the 2015 NFL season by Zebra Sports Solutions. These trackers measure distance and speed and can essentially record NFL plays in 3D space for posterity.

I watched a replay clip with Next Gen Stats, and it basically looked like a Madden game replay but with players replaced by X-and-O icons. You can't see how a ball was caught, but you can zoom in or out and see how a play unfolded and tap player icons to see their speed during plays. A pick-em game that turns this data into an in-season fantasy challenge will be offered to Xbox players, too.

While motion data is being recorded by the NFL continuously, on the Xbox or Windows 10 motion data is limited to the 10-12 replays that the NFL chooses to send per game. But the future potential could be amazing: Madden football, for instance.

Microsoft's new NFL app for Xbox One and Windows 10 will arrive in time for this season's kickoff.