Beyond a new revenue stream which has already driven a higher stock price, the contract Microsoft recently announced to deliver its HoloLens 2 virtual reality headset to the US Army may provide a few other goodies for the company.
First, the US Army rollout will help Microsoft refine its product for non-military high reliability markets such as industrial and health care. On the HoloLens 2 resource page, Microsoft provides reports on use cases in three fields — manufacturing, healthcare, and retail. Scanning through the reports provided, one gets the sense that virtual or augmented reality is another technology space that will benefit from accelerated uptake as a result of the pandemic lifestyle.
Running through a military trial by fire should provide ample proof that the Microsoft systems are bullet-proof. More to the point, it will provide a good marketing pitch for the Microsoft sales team.
Junko Yoshida described the demonstration of the original HoloLens project back in 2015. Junko expressed irritation caused by “catatonic” earbud people, so naturally worried what AR headset wearers might be like. Soon we may get a glimpse of what an army of goggled zombies can accomplish.
Even those on the periphery of this space will likely be familiar with another augmented reality project: Google Glass.
By 2015, Glass was no longer the darling of Google marketing or the breathless tech press, but the concept found its place as an enterprise product that Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is competing with.
A little googling Google goggles was in order. My own alma mater appears on the customer list. The College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan is developing various remote presence technologies to serve remote communities often many hundreds of miles distant from the nearest doctor.
An actual reality glance at the Google Glass customer list reveals many healthcare operations. Microsoft will have some competition in this space.
Highlighted text on the Glass landing page is striking: “25% reduction in production time on low volume, complex assemblies.”
That could be quickly translated as “Google Glass is suited to production lines where the economics don’t warrant full automation,” or “the robots need a little more time to learn more difficult tasks.”
According to Fintech Zoom, a key piece for a military application is the cloud computing infrastructure. Although Amazon has the scale and security along with a lot of experience serving large US government entities, Amazon does not yet have an AR headset on the market.
Fintech Zoom made another interesting point based on simple math. Microsoft headsets are about $3,500 now, but even if a special ruggedized version along with untrimmed defense procurement fat put the price tag at $35,000 the contracted number of 120,000 units would put the total price at a measly $4.2 billion while the DoD committed figure is $22 billion (if the second five year option extends the contract to 10 years).
The difference is the value of the services in the Microsoft Azure cloud computing portion. Microsoft may not have had the winning combination of secure cloud and headset capability, it may have had the only one close to meeting Army specifications.
At the risk of continue to bore regular readers, I need to once again voice my acrimony over acronyms.
Looking to decipher (or at the least determine the trendiest current use of) the common AR, VR, and XR terminology, I came across an article on Medium that made the foursome for us with MR.
- AR — augmented reality.
- VR — virtual reality.
- XR — extended reality.
- MR — mixed reality.
Those are the full spellings-out of each acronym. However, it appears a full column or series of columns might be necessary to explain the actual differentiated meaning of each of those is. At least, I don’t get the distinction between augmented and mixed realities.
A significant portion of the fractured list of descriptors was likely the result of the search for a marketing term that resonated. Personally, I think we are still waiting, so be prepared for more change as the field expands.
Speaking of change, we bought a vowel, so maybe we would like to solve the puzzle, Pat. Let’s try VMAX reality. No good? I’ll keep my day job.
To be fair, there is some acceptance that XR is an umbrella term that can be used to cover the nuances between each of the various virtual views of the physical world.
Come to think of it, an extended reality might be well timed for our current human condition. Since the pandemic has ruled our lives for more than a year and led to frequent lockdown orders, it seems like an augmentation of reality is in order, just to make things feel a little more normal. At least a virtual tour can be accomplished without sucking air through a mask.
What might the XR (VMAX anyone?) space might mean in the longer term?
Let’s start with the Fintech Zoom assertion that the main play is the service related to the software running on the Azure platform.
Seeing what we have over the last decade or so, I think it’s safe to say that the data mined from users is an important commodity and one that definitely drives the development of new technology, from algorithms for social media and search to cell phone hardware better suited to human interaction.
Extended reality might just make that data mining a little more direct as well as expanding into new realms.
Robots may or may not be ready to take on certain jobs that humans are currently tasked with. But people will be feeding their own expertise directly into the machines that will one day replace them. Teaching your low cost replacement used to be such a bore, but now you can use a new app running in a cool heads-up display.
Powerful cloud computers and their machine learning accelerators are watching how we do things and getting a handle on exactly when, where and how to replace us.
For now, there is a human capitalist deciding if and when to eliminate a job through automation. But a carbon-based lifeform is likely not better suited to the decision than silicon. Except for those already made redundant, we are necessary meatware for now, but the machines have every intention of going vegan one day.