Following the Google Glasses debacle, companies continue to search for opportunities to use augmented reality solutions. Large enterprises such as Microsoft, Google, Samsung have been exploring augmented reality solutions, but have yet to find a real market for the expensive, cumbersome head sets. And while Microsoft may have identified one such opportunity, it appears that their developers aren’t happy.
Samsung and Google have had some success with integrating augmented reality software into their smartphones. The problem with augmented reality isn’t the software: it’s the hardware. Augmented reality devices such as Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens are either awkward-looking or large and heavy, with limited battery power and computational capacity. They suffer from many of the same issues as consumer-grade VR: the technology isn’t quite there to make it a feasible device for most people.
For the purposes of gaming and entertainment, most consumers have moved into the VR space. PlayStation, Oculus Rift, and HTC have all been able to corner this market. This leaves systems like the HoloLens somewhat adrift. HoloLens isn’t a B2C device: it’s marketed as a B2B device that can help companies with their engineering and their production. Still, the devices aren’t gaining much traction. With a $3,500 price tag, the HoloLens is more expensive than any available Virtual Reality headset, in addition to the lower priced Magic Leap.
With consumers and businesses not altogether enamored with its headset, Microsoft has instead chosen to enter into a contract with the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s easy to see why the U.S. Army would be a better fit for this type of technology. For entertainment and gaming purposes, VR simply makes more sense. Even for many engineering and drawing applications, virtual reality creates a better canvas. But for the military, augmented reality could be truly useful: it’s a rare situation in which the reality around an individual is pertinent to what they are seeing on the device.
Microsoft’s $480 million contract with the military is intended to provide HoloLens prototypes for the purposes of both training and combat. If this project ended up to be suitable for military use, Microsoft could stand to make quite a lot of money. Military contracts are the bread-and-butter of many technology firms, and there is no industry with greater amounts of spending than the defense industry.
In the past, the military has adopted the use of game consoles for computational power, and game controllers for easier, more affordable control of military devices.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, this military contract (which could be very good for the company) is also garnering some push back among employees. Employees have stated that they did not join Microsoft in order to create military weapons, and that they are not interested in developing them. An open letter has been released to the company demanding the cancelation of the contract immediately, as employees are finding it a moral issue.
This is not unprecedented. Just a couple of years ago, this also happened with Google when employees created a petition to prevent Google from providing AI technology to the Pentagon. The ultimate result was that Google decided not to renew its contract, though it did complete the its work.
In the case of Microsoft, it doesn’t seem as though the company is going to be backing down. The CEO has stated that the contract is going to continue and that, in the future, Microsoft will continue to work with the government on these types of technology. However, Microsoft’s CEO did pledge to keep an on-going dialogue with employees regarding these changes and the decisions that Microsoft is making. These headsets are not only going to the US military, but also the Israeli military — which has stated that the technology could potentially be used to save lives on the battlefield.
Microsoft has made some controversial decisions in the past few years, but no one can argue that its current CEO hasn’t been instrumental in building the company up. CEO Satya Nadella is responsible for breaking Microsoft into the cloud service, which brought the company significantly more market share in a booming sector. Military affiliation can only improve upon the company’s bottom line, while some employees and even investors may disagree on an ethical level.