Holograms suddenly make Microsoft cool again

An onstage HoloLens demo.


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If Microsoft ever needed a dose of the cool, it’s now. Fortunately, the company seems to have gotten the message.

The company’s rollout yesterday of a slew of new features for Windows 10 includes some pretty nifty features — and at least one big surprise.

In addition to a bunch of expected features (such as a single operating system that unifies Windows on tablets and PCs with its phone and the expected addition of the virtual voice-activated assistant Cortana), Microsoft showed off one especially cool thing: Its HoloLens, an augmented-reality headset that superimposes virtual “holographs” over the real world.

Another sign of coolness and integration: Microsoft said yesterday that people who had bought Xbox games would be able to play them on their Windows 10 PCs and tablets, too. If you’re a gamer, that’s pretty cool — and it helps to better integrate Xbox into Microsoft’s overall ecosystem.

The HoloLens has multiple sensors and a custom Microsoft chip called a Holographic Processing Unit to help it understand what you’re looking at and where you are in space. It’s connected to a new Microsoft product called Windows Holographic, which extends that augmented-reality capability to all Windows users. Holographic application programming interfaces (APIs) will be embedded within Windows 10.

Rather than a virtual-reality headset like the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR, which block out the real world and replace it with a virtual one, the HoloLens add things to the real world that only you can see: Virtual display screens on walls, 3D objects you can model on your desktop with hand gestures, or playful little sprites that dance around your furniture as part of a game you’re playing with them.

The videos demonstrating the system are impressive, even if they leave me wondering whether anyone would actually want to use an interface like this once the novelty wears off.

But more important, it shows that Microsoft under Satya Nadella is finally starting to figure out how to pull together its considerable assets into a single, more cohesive whole. That’s something the company has struggled with for years.

“We want to move from people needing Windows, to choosing Windows, to loving Windows,” Nadella said yesterday. “That is our bold goal with Windows.”

Now, Microsoft has never exactly been “cool.” Even Bill Gates became a lot cooler when he left the company he founded, and that’s saying a lot. But with a mature OS business, threats from gigantic competitors, and a lackluster reputation among techies, coolness might be just what Microsoft needs.

As I wrote in October, Microsoft’s last big OS launch wasn’t exactly spectacular. Windows 8 was an ambitious attempt to introduce a new, touch-centric interface while maintaining compatibility with the massive number of old, keyboard-and-mouse Windows applications out there. It didn’t quite flop, selling 200 million copies in its first 15 months, but Microsoft hasn’t released any sales figures for the OS since February, and this is never a good sign. (If sales were good, Microsoft would be bragging about them.)

Worse, Windows 8 (including its incremental upgrade, 8.1) barely shows up in a measure of what kinds of computers people are using to access the Internet. That’s one way of finding out what kinds of computers people are actually using, and the signs aren’t good. Windows 8 and 8.1 currently account for about 12.5 percent of the computers connecting to the Internet, according to NetMarketShare. Windows 7, by contrast, accounts for more than half of the browsing public — while Microsoft’s ancient and long-obsolete OS, Windows XP, still holds more than 24 percent.

Microsoft bet big on the tablet interface with Windows 8, hoping to cash in on the increasing coolness of tablets from 2010-2012, but its bet failed. The new interface was too confusing for people — and tablet sales have actually slackened a bit, suggesting that Microsoft’s bet was poorly timed.

One cautionary note: People — including me — have been making dire predictions about Microsoft for years. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that more than 85 percent of the desktop computers people are using, according to that NetMarketShare data, are running Microsoft operating systems. (And desktop computers still account for more than 80 percent of overall browsing activity, while tablets and mobile phones have less than 20 percent.) With billions of Windows licenses out there, and robust businesses based on Office, Azure, Xbox, and more, Microsoft isn’t going to quietly fade away any time soon.

But if it can’t capture some of the cool factor, it will have a hard time inspiring employees and customers, and Microsoft will face a long, slow battle against companies like Google and Apple that don’t have such difficulties. That will, over time, erode the company’s dominance, no matter how much of a lead it has now.

Is this week’s news enough to save the company from a long, slow decline into irrelevance? Let’s be clear: The HoloLens alone won’t make the difference between Microsoft undergoing a renaissance and Microsoft fading into a comfortable obscurity.

But as a sign of the company’s more strategic, integrated thinking, it’s promising indeed. And a little cool factor doesn’t hurt at all.


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from VentureBeat » Dylan Tweney http://ift.tt/1yTWviL

Holograms suddenly make Microsoft cool again

I talk to Fox Business about CES 2015

Screenshot of Dylan Tweney on Fox Business talking to Charles Payne.
Screenshot of Dylan Tweney on Fox Business talking to Charles Payne.

Wearables will be everywhere at CES, I said last week on the eve of the big gadget show.

“Everyone wants to be the next Apple watch,” I told Fox Business, “but unfortunately we’re going to have to wait for the Apple Watch to come out.” And as everyone knows, Apple doesn’t do CES.

I also talked about the 8k TVs that will be hyped at this year’s CES. “Manufacturers are going to be showing off 8K TVs, which are 16 times as many pixels that you have in your HD TV today,” I said. “But there’s no content for 8K, there are no cameras for 8K, and most people don’t even know why they need a 4K TV yet.”

What else could I complain about? Virtual reality masks like Oculus VR. If you liked the way you looked in Google Glass, you’re going to love Oculus, I joked.

Video

Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms

Look at these people using a selfie stick. They're so happy!

What will be hot in consumer electronics and computing in 2015? Read VB’s full coverage of International CES 2015 to find out.

The best things at CES, an annual festival of consumer electronics and excess in Las Vegas, were not what you’d expect. Giant televisions were everywhere, of course, along with the usual forest of cellphone cases, Apple product knockoffs, tablets no one wants, and cheap cameras.

But what I was most excited about were a handful of products that people will actually use.

Disclaimer: I didn’t go to CES myself. For the third year in a row I’ve escaped the mayhem by sending less jaded members of the VentureBeat news team to Vegas. But as a longtime gadget nerd, I wasn’t able to peel my eyes away from the ongoing spectacle, even from afar.

Here’s what CES tells us to look for in 2015.

Selfie sticks

There will be more selfie sticks. And, just as we did with people taking photos with their iPads, techies will mock them. But, just as with iPad photography, the joke will be on us. Because selfie sticks are genuinely useful — they are a simple hack, an inexpensive gadget that lets people take better photos. And not only solo selfies, but group shots — which means selfie sticks are in fact a very pro-social invention.

Over the holidays I walked past a group of three young women on the San Francisco waterfront, obviously all friends, each taking her own individual selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Each one held her own individual phone and gave it her own individual fake, selfie smile. It was so sad. What these women needed was a selfie stick.

USB Type C

The people who designed the original USB plug specifications should be forced to spend their retirement years doing jigsaw puzzles, because that’s what I feel like every time I try to plug something in. Who in their right minds thought it was a good idea to create a plug-and-port combo that is asymmetrical, but looks entirely symmetrical? It’s even worse given that many USB ports — in the past anyway — were situated on the backs of computers, in the dark, against the wall, where you can only feel your way to them. This disaster of industrial engineering has been pithily summarized with a graphic explaining how you need to rotate USB plugs three times before they work, which is explained by reference to quantum physics.

Enough complaining, though: USB Type C fixes this problem by making a USB port that is, at last, symmetrical — so it doesn’t matter which way you put the plug in. HALLELUJAH!

As a bonus, USB-C recognizes that people use USB as a power port as much as — if not more than — they use it as a data connection. So the new spec can deliver electricity in both directions: You can use a USB-C port on your computer to power up a phone, or you can connect a power adapter and use it to power up your computer. Slick! I can’t wait.

Terrycloth gadgets

FashionComm's terrycloth wearable.

This fitness gadget embedded in a terrycloth sweatband may be the most ridiculous-looking thing that Harrison Weber put on his body at CES — and he put a lot of things on his body. I personally think it’s incredibly ugly.

But the terrycloth is a sign that gadget makers no longer have to limit themselves to hard plastic thingies. If fitness gadgets are huge this year — and they probably will be — why not make them comfortable to wear? Why not start incorporating materials that feel good against your skin, like cotton, silk, and fleece?

The real problem with this dorky “smart sweatband” is not the terrycloth, it’s the protruding screen. That part needs to disappear.

Quantum dots

The problem with quantum dots is their name. As I was describing them to a new acquaintance earlier this week, he pointed this problem out. He said, “Every time you said the word ‘quantum dot,’ I imagine the word ‘asshole’ appearing across your forehead.” And you know what? He’s right. It’s one of the most ridiculous-sounding tech marketing terms to come out since “deep learning.”

But quantum dots are the rare example of a TV technology that you might actually want. (Unlike 3D TV.) It’s a technique for illuminating an LCD screen’s pixels with brighter, more natural light than you can get with the usual LED backlights. Quantum dots could make screens that are almost as vivid and gorgeous as OLED screens, and which use less power than current LCDs, but which are much more cost efficient. I want one.

Washing machines, door locks, and smoke alarms

Gadget bloggers made fun of Samsung and LG when they announced new washing machines. I made fun of LG when it touted a “smart refrigerator” last year. But LG and Samsung will have the last laugh, because they will sell billions of dollars worth of these appliances — since such appliances actually do something useful.

You can forget about the ugly phrase “Internet of Things” and its even uglier abbreviation, “IoT.” The sooner we leave these terms behind, the better. What they’re really about is connecting ordinary gadgets to the Internet, giving them IP addresses and APIs. Forget putting a screen on your fridge. Nest (now owned by Google) has the right idea about how to incorporate home appliances into the Internet: Give a gadget a modicum of intelligence, get it on the Internet (maybe by using Nest as the central hub), and let it communicate with an app on your phone.

I don’t need a dishwasher that can talk to me. It doesn’t need to use neural networks to figure out the optimal time to wash my dishes. Just a little bit of intelligence — like letting me monitor its energy and water consumption via my phone — would be enough to make me happy.

Dylan’s Desk: The best of CES, from selfie sticks to smoke alarms