HoloLens points the way to the augmented reality future

Virtual reality is fine for games, but the true game-changer will be the interaction between the real and virtual worlds

Virtual reality is all the rage, with pioneers like the Oculus Rift now facing competition, especially around gaming, from companies like HTC, Lenovo, Samsung, and Sony. So it's easy to forget Microsoft's HoloLens, which (like the Meta 1 and Meta 2 devices from startup Meta Co.) does more than show you a virtual world -- it lets you interact with it in what's called augmented reality.

Microsoft recently released the HoloLens developer edition for a whopping $3,000 (compared to $949 for the upcoming Meta 2 developer kit). It has also released the Commercial Suite, which includes the Development Edition and adds enterprise features for security and device management, including Azure Active Directory with next-gen credentials with PIN unlock, mobile management support, BitLocker encryption, and secure boot. You can also set up a private store in the Windows Store for Business to distribute HoloLens apps to your company employees.

Given Microsoft's ubiquity and recent success with its Surface Pro tablets, HoloLens has the best chance to become the dominant interactive VR platform. That is, if developers make it so.

HoloLens could easily become simply another way to play games (a Minecraft demo at E3 last year was mind-blowing) or watch porn. Or it could revolutionize business, changing the way we learn, work, and live.

What comes to mind is the movie "Hackers." Although it's a poor example (and made for a dorky special effect), you might recall the example in that movie of moving through files like a game. Silly, yes -- but it's indicative of what could be.

Alex Kimpan spoke about possible revolutionary changes in a TED Talk entitled "A futuristic vision of the age of holograms." Having the ability to touch and feel digital content will change how we learn and how we create.

Imagine the different types of businesses that might benefit from a tool like 3D interactive holograms: health care, fashion, automotive, design, and construction. Any job that involves the creation of prototypes will benefit, as fewer fewer prototypes will need to be made and users can apply real-time design updates. Simulated learning environments will help students to go beyond the classroom and into their fields virtually. Microsoft has demonstrated such a holographic training program from Japan Airlines for working on jet engines.

The first version HoloLens is sleek and will become sleeker over time. It will change, getting smaller and more powerful. Eventually, it will be like putting on a pair of sunglasses, a visor à la Geordi LaForge from "Star Trek," or perhaps a pair contacts. If you want to go full VR, I imagine these headsets will be able to block out the real world and immerse you in a virtual environment.

Communication and collaboration will take a leap forward in ways that VR alone cannot provide. Because you're still in the real world, you can still see your surrounding environment, your work, and your work mates -- the 3D overlays enhance, not replace, your space. In his TED Talk, Kimpan speaks with a 3D, full-bodied hologram of a NASA engineer who is in the hotel room across the street. At the same time, they put a hologram from imagery from the Mars rover on the floor to simulate walking on the red planet. Remote communication combined with collaboration: That's what we have to look forward to.

Microsoft is one of the pioneers of this coming revolution. With developers' help it will be a key driver as well.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.