The Future of Computing Is Your Face

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

One thing has become very clear in the last year, and it was drawn into even sharper focus this week: the future of computing is going to take place right on our faces.

Whether it is in the form of virtual reality (e.g. Oculus Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus) or augmented reality (e.g. Google's Glass) the vision of the future that has tech companies stumbling over themselves to capture the public's imagination relies on the idea that we'll all be wearing stuff on our faces.

The latest entrant into the Face Race: Microsoft, which showed off their Windows Holographic platform featuring the Windows HoloLens headset at its big Windows 10 event yesterday.

The HoloLenses promise to create virtual objects -- which Microsoft is calling holograms even though these things are not holograms -- on just about every surface imaginable. The teaser video Microsoft put out along with the announcement showed a wide range of use cases: from step by step plumbing tutorials (no, really) to knocking down a wall to reveal a Minecraft kingdom, and since every internet connected device is legally required to have it: Netflix.

You know: augmented reality Minecraft makes so much sense it hurts.

The head mounted display itself was refreshing in it's studied inelegance. Not as bulky as an Oculus Rift, while not trying as hard as Google Glass to be inconspicuous and thus failing miserably. You'll note that almost all of the promo images of the system kind of leave the look of the headset out of the equation. The whole vibe that came off the HoloLenses demo was that this thing is supposed to be used indoors near a desk or in the living room. The irony being that unlike the current version of the Oculus Rift or Sony's Project Morpheus the HoloLenses purport to be fully autonomous units in their own right: no other computing device is needed for them to operate.

Not that things are shipping right now. Instead they're being promised "within the Windows 10" timeframe. Which is an almost completely meaningless term that is dependent on the lifecycle of Microsoft's newest operating system.

The demo videos for HoloLenses become all the more interesting when compared to the images bundled with Magic Leap's patent application which just became public thanks to a Wired article yesterday. Magic Leap, you'll recall, is the Florida company that has over a half-a-billion in venture capital to create a device that will beam virtual images directly onto a user's retinas. A prospect that is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying if you've seen enough Star Trek.

While the placement of virtual objects in space as detailed in the images is very similar to the Microsoft demo video the big difference is in Magic Leap's use of what they call "totems." These will be physical objects which stand in as interface proxies for virtual objects.

For instance: a six sided die would have different app icons on each face. Turn the die and you can switch app.

It's this blending of the virtual and real which will not only create new design languages but open up new vistas for storytellers, game designers and artists. How thick the line between the virtual and real is will determine the success of this vision of augmented reality.

Today's AR images superimposed and not blended in to their surroundings. It's the difference between a sci-fi film shot on a low budget in the 1980s and what a television crew manages to pull off on CW's The Flash. One looks cheap and the other looks good enough that you're not laughing at the TV.

Decades of exposure mean that we've just come to expect more from computer generated images.

In video games that's meant either riding straight towards photo realism or creating stylized aesthetics which let the player relax into the fiction of that world. These are the design choices that virtual reality creators are facing, and some of them are stumbling over the limitations of the hardware in the quest for the photoreal. Augmented reality designers face these same issues, but also have to deal with mapping the real world.

If Microsoft and Magic Leap can't get the seams right the technology won't seem right.

Public media's, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.