Microsoft HoloLens isn't a toy, creator says. At least not yet

Alex Kipman, the father of Microsoft's augmented reality goggles, says it will be a while before the price of HoloLens is ready for the mass market.

Gabriel Sama Managing Editor, CNET en Español
Gabriel was the founding editor and editorial director for CNET en Español CNET's Spanish-language edition. With more than twenty years in journalism, he has launched projects in the U.S., Mexico, Greece, El Salvador and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries. He also worked for the Spanish edition of The Wall Street Journal and launched the chain of Rumbo newspapers in Texas. He is married with two children, and lives in Palo Alto, California.
Gabriel Sama
9 min read

Inventor. Visionary. Futurist.

This is Alex Kipman, the man behind Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality goggles, one of the company's most ambitious products. That seems like a fitting challenge for someone who was admitted to Microsoft's Hall of Legends in 2011 for his work on the Kinect motion controller.

But two years after the Brazil-born Kipman introduced HoloLens in January 2015, the goggles -- which overlay virtual 3D images on what you're seeing in the real world -- still haven't been released to consumers. (Developers can buy the HoloLens Development Kit for $3,000, while companies can pick up the HoloLens Commercial Suite for $5,000.)

CNET en Español's Gabriel Sama caught up with Kipman at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to talk about the future of the HoloLens, its potential as a consumer device and Microsoft's biggest challenges with AR. Oh, and they also discussed Pokemon Go.

Here's an edited version of the conversation.


Microsoft's Alex Kipman comes onstage at a Windows 10 press event on Jan. 21, 2015 to introduce Windows Holographic and HoloLens.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Q: Where are you at right now with HoloLens?

Based on demand and where the business is going, we're in nine different countries today. We're in many places in Europe and we just launched in Japan. And we announced in December that we're coming to China. [That's] super interesting because, to some extent, this mixed reality world is going mainstream in China first.

What do people think of when you talk to them about mixed reality?

There exist two universes today. The universe you and I live in and the digital one made out entirely of bits. Mixed reality is the intersection of both these universes -- to all of a sudden be able to displace space and time without having to deal with all of these digital interfaces that are so unnatural. Without all of this magic being trapped behind a 2D screen.

What if, all of the sudden, we could have this level of interactivity [and] perception where all of our senses are saturated with all of the information that's happening here, but you happen to not be here? You are still in San Francisco sitting on a couch in front of me [in Redmond] having this level of connectivity. To some extent, that is the value proposition of mixed reality. If this is done right, there is no education required. You [already] know what it feels like to sit here and have a conversation with me, you don't have to learn it. It's about more human ways of interacting with technology.

You say it has to be done right. My first virtual reality experience was a bit negative because I got nauseous. What's the challenge with the HoloLens?

There are three things. First and foremost, there has to be physical comfort when putting the device on. No. 2, it needs to be immersive -- to actually feel like it belongs there. And last, it needs to transform me and allow me to do something that cannot be done through another medium or through other device. That's a great first experience and that is what we tried to build into this.

Alex Kipman Microsoft HoloLens

Alex Kipman in Microsoft's Redmond offices, January 2017.

Gabriel Sama/CNET

When we talk about VR, augmented reality, mixed reality, we're using the word reality. How real do you want to make it?

Mixed reality is a new medium for how we interact with technology. But when you talk about mixed reality with AI as the intelligence that powers it, [we're talking] the future of computing. And the goal, to get philosophical, is to essentially allow new types of conversations to happen -- where we are spending time together as humans, but with technology transparently around us. Essentially empowering us to do more, to achieve more, to be more creative.

Do you think such high expectations could make people frustrated?

Your point is super valid. To some extent, that's why we called HoloLens a dev kit to start, but that's a very explicitly picked [term]. It's so we can learn. So that we don't rush to that first impression that is frustrating to customers.

I'm in the business of building fans. I want people to love our products, and I want to build this community. And I think that it is a journey that we have to go through as a tribe and it's generational in a sense. Which is why I'm in no rush to go immediately to a place that could screw up a first impression as we're trying to learn something that's brand new.

This is obviously a very complex hardware and software system: The user interface, the sensors, the screen -- so many things. What was the most challenging to develop?

The short answer: yes [laughs]. It's all of it. It's almost like asking the question what was easy? Falling in love with it, falling in love with it was easy. Everything else is incredibly hard. And the magic here is it's an integrated team [responsible for] marketing, operating system, experiences, optics, electrical and the algorithms running science fiction and science reality. Something as simple as putting an image of a hologram on a table requires all of it.

And we all feed off each other and trade off each other because it's all difficult. We had to invent the lenses. We have to create the sensors. And then we have to connect and run all of this data on custom silicon that doesn't exist. That's how our holographic processing, or HPU, [was created].

It's a full computer. Now think about putting that in a teeny, tiny space over your head where you can't fit a fan, and you have to passively cool this thing. That operating system that manages all of this is brand new. You then put it into a brand-new shell that's [world-oriented and] not tasked-oriented. A shell where things just exist and you're participating in these experiences. It's about the little airplane flying on the little chess table, and they're coexisting in the same place, which changes how you do rendering. It changes the app model. It changes all of these tools that we have.

[And that means] new ways of marketing. How do you position it? How do you define it to people? How do you launch it? It's all complicated. How do you manufacture it at that scale with high yields to hit this price point? You know devices of this kind existed a few years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So how do you do something that's like, 10 times better and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of product for $3,000? So yes, it's all complicated and delicious.

A closer look at the Microsoft HoloLens (pictures)

See all photos

You talked about the Windows Holographic platform when you introduced it two years ago. Should we think about HoloLens as a platform or a device?

As a platform, undoubtedly.

HoloLens, and I think I'm consistent from the first day we introduced it, is the first self-contained holographic computer. Today it's still the only [one] but from day one I've invited anybody else that's working in this space to participate in this ecosystem with us. You see a lot of other people creating headsets. My invitation remains open to that entire ecosystem to come participate. Last May, I went to Computex in Taipei and I formally started working with the ecosystem on it. And six months later, in October, we announced five different products from five large OEMs -- Dell, HP, Lenovo, ASUS and Acer -- that had taken HoloLens sensors with our help and created the best and the most affordable mixed-reality headsets in the market today.

Because of all of the innovation, we can make more affordable [headsets]. HoloLens will always remain our highest watermark product in the system, and we'll keep ratcheting it up to more and more realistic, awesome, intelligent, delicious things.

And in the process of doing that, we'll continue to invite people to come talk to us. We're going to talk to them to join us in this mixed-reality journey.

Do you have any plans for a consumer version?

In terms of consumer product, I'm going to separate two things. Are there plans for this thing being a non-dev kit? Abso-freakin-lutely, of course. When? I'm not going to tell you today, but of course we have plans to become a non-dev kit. Now, once it's a non-dev kit, anybody can buy.

The better question and the better way to answer it is, at what point is this thing going to be under $1,000? Because I can say it's a consumer product tomorrow because I can remove the dev kit thing, [but] the $3,000 thing is going to get in the way of it becoming a mass market consumer product. You have to reduce the price point until it's affordable to the majority of the populous of Earth, which will be under a $1,000 and then some to get there. Roadmaps for both of those things exist today, but I'm not going to announce or talk about it today.

Where would I put the premium, is another way of answering this question. I would put the premium on increasing immersion while increasing comfort. Those things pull against each other because they imply one thing: Prices going up. I'm not gonna make the price go up, but I am going to increase immersion. I am going to increase comfort.

But that should tell you that, would the price go down in that process dramatically? Probably not. We're focused on enterprise today, where we've been transforming people's lives since last year.

How did you choose the companies and developers to work with? And was there ever a concern a vertical wouldn't work as a holographic experience?

A lot of people call us, and we answer phone calls. And other ones we deliberately we go seek. In all of them you always worry that it's not going to work out. It's an exercise in discovery.

Let's say Company A in health care either calls us or we go talk to them. We should want to do something together, there's something here. Want to explore it? We are the experts in holograms. We know what holograms work for, what holograms don't work for. We know nothing about health care. They're the experts in health care. They know what needs to be solved, what they are trying to do, and what they can't do. We spend three days together brainstorming -- stickies on a whiteboard -- about everything. And they outline every single thing they want to do. And they're like, "that's what HoloLens would be good for." Nope, it won't be good for that. And we whittle it down from a thousand ideas to fewer ideas to one idea, which we then pilot. And then we timebox that pilot. So it was three days to get from many to one. We explore then in about three months. It's a joint exercise. Our developers with their developers sitting together in the same space, trying to produce something for practice.

When someone calls us and it's something we've done, [like] automotive, we say, "let me give you all of these case studies and connect you to an agency." We have a very rich agency program that we connect them with, but we don't spend our time on it. We spend [our] time on a vertical we don't understand to go do that discovery.

That's been kind of the process. And I would say that so far, I haven't found a space or vertical that [can't] transform how they approach their lives. And I'm always surprised because it's never the thing you think of. You think of a vertical and "it's got to be good for that," and you're almost always wrong. It's fascinating to see the thing that comes out at the end. I mean I think both sides get surprised in the process.

Last year, Pokemon Go showed the potential of AR. What do you think of it?

I love all innovation. The more of these things that happen confirm that the next secular trend for computing is mixed reality.

Pokemon Go was a super interesting exercise. The premium I put on that experience is their location database. Like the magic there, in my mind, and OK fine I am a technical guy, so not a very poetic answer. The thing that I was fascinated by is the actual location database they provided and they curated to be able to bring that experience to market. And it was a magical experience that shows you the power of location, the power of spaces, the power of [overlaying] digital assets over the real world, even if it is a little thing. And it shows you that as soon as the content goes over the real world you have people running in parks in the middle of the night for a purpose. It's exciting.

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