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From Hololens to Mesh, Microsoft has been preparing its foray into the metaverse for years

Released in 2016, Microsoft’s Hololens augmented reality glasses have come a long way in 6 years. After working with the US military, canceling several headset-related projects and downsizing in 2022, Microsoft is still heading towards the metaverse. that The Wall Street Journal returned, on Wednesday, October 26, to the Hololens originally intended for video games.

From video games to army to the end of the metaverse

It all started in the late 2010s, when Microsoft, which was then marketing the Xbox 360 S, recruited a team to think about what the next generation of games could look like. The service imagines ” ScreenZero a product idea that would replace all screens with augmented reality headsets, according to a statement from a former Microsoft engineer.

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That same year, Microsoft officially built a prototype headset connected to a computer via a large cable. During the first demonstration, people, amazed by this new technology, could see hundreds of geometric shapes moving almost in front of them. After a few demonstrations, the cubes and rectangles became dolphins.

Since the alpha prototype, the Brazilian engineer in charge of the project, Alep Kipman, has been working hard to motivate his teams to add new technologies to the helmet and free it from its cable. According to the statements of the teams, many designs have been thought and big mistakes have been made due to the difficulty of integrating so many technologies in such a small element.

In January 2015, during a press event for journalists and companies, the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, unveiled the Hololens in a video intended for professionals. The leader shows a future where users could collaborate to build projects but also interact with virtual dogs. Later, during the Xbox conference at E3, the biggest video game event of the year, Microsoft showed through the game Minecraft, bought for 2.5 billion dollars in 2014, how players will be immersed in the game through their augmented reality headset.

The Hololens was released on March 30, 2016 for $3,000. Since the product was too expensive for most consumers, Microsoft formed working groups to decline their offer to businesses. After several presentations, the new technology giant will enter into a collaboration with NASA to give employees the opportunity to see the surface of Mars.

Some time after the first sale, some problems appeared on the Hololens: the light distorted the sensors; the hands were very poorly detected. Former employees said Microsoft sometimes lied during demos. Users thought they were looking at a perfect live scan of a part through the headset, when in fact they were seeing a digital rendering made much earlier.

Various companies have nevertheless tested the Hololen experience in their daily lives. Japan Airlines has tried to train its crews and their engine mechanics. Car manufacturer Mercedes Benz has used the device to help mechanics carry out complex repairs. Employees could call their boss remotely to draw live in augmented reality the steps to follow.

The Hololens 2 was supposed to solve the problems with its predecessor

During these crucial tests, Hololens 2 is already in development. One of the goals of the second generation is to expand the field of view and improve the user experience. However, Microsoft’s budgetary constraints will force teams originally formed for video games to be moved first to Windows and then to the cloud. Lacking a vision for the future, the project managers began to lose hope.

In 2018, Microsoft signed an agreement with the US military that could go up to 21.88 billion dollars. In detail, the American company was to supply 100,000 Hololens 2 for $479 million to help soldiers train and interact on the battlefield. To succeed in its mission, the Redmond-based company had to integrate even more technology than in its first helmet, such as cameras, military-grade detectors, radio, night vision.

The US Army.

The US Army equipped with Hololens. Photo: US Army

The first tests turned out to be a real failure. During combat training, the headset kept disconnecting from local wireless networks. They disabled weapon trackers so the soldiers couldn’t practice. According to service members and former employees, the helmets were heavy, straining the eyes and uncomfortable. In 2021, the Army paused its tests for 1 year to allow Microsoft to meet all the necessary criteria. The Army, which saw little change since 2018, canceled the deal in October 2021. A year later, Brigadier General Christophe Schneider claimed the Army had recently conducted a successful test for the first $479 million contract, but statements from soldiers report nausea when they used the helmet.

Hololens 3 and a helmet for the general public will never see the light of day

During this military episode, Microsoft had planned to update the Hololens 2 released in 2019 for $3,500 and release an affordable headset to the general public. However, since the beginning of the year, the two projects, including the Hololens 3 for professionals, have been put aside, according to the employees. The device’s 300,000 sales since 2016, according to a tally by International Data Corp, have forced Microsoft to cut budget and headcount. Former employees complained that the staff was so small that they were constantly overloaded with work and no longer understood their true missions. In June 2022, Microsoft announced the departure of Alep Kipman, who had led the HoloLens team from the start. The tech giant said it had carried out investigations into the engineer’s work behaviour, including his management style.

Today, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, is starting to take an interest in the metaverse. During a conference last July, the executive stated that the company was approaching a “software approach” to this new universe. In 2021, the development of its business tools such as Microsoft Teams Mesh, which would enable working in virtual 3D spaces, was announced. To begin its expansion, Microsoft has partnered with Facebook’s parent company under Meta Connect, this October 2022. The work package, Office 365, will be integrated into the Quest virtual reality headset. It remains to be seen whether the company’s strategy of developing augmented reality headsets is finally buried or will return in case of democratization of the object.

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