If Google released their augmented reality Project Glass tomorrow, a few of us would buy them, and the rest of us—probably most of us—would laugh. Augmented reality is one of those ideas that we all sort of agree has potential, but hasn’t invented that killer-app use case scenario that explains to mom and grandma alike why they need it. Heck, I’d wager that the average person still has little idea what augmented reality even is.
Now, a set of documents on Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox 720 may have leaked, revealing an Xbox-related set of augmented reality glasses. Whether or not they’re real is unconfirmed—Microsoft never comments on the validity of leaks—but their lawyers have been requesting the documents be pulled from distribution.
The approach is potentially brilliant. Microsoft will release the Xbox 720 in 2013, which has six times faster performance but will ultimately resemble a low-powered set-top box to potentially stream content from the cloud like OnLive rather than rendering high-end graphics and physics in a person’s home. It comes with a better version of Kinect.
Then, in 2014, Kinect Glasses come out. These offer an augmented reality experience for gaming, pulling off stunts like making characters appear right in your living room. They call it a "screen zero" interaction.
In 2015, things get interesting. Through a 3G/4G phone, "always connected" Kinect Glasses "create on the go/location aware experiences" complete with an app store. By rendering in the cloud, Microsoft could offer any sort of graphics you could imagine, untethered in the real world. So that’s Microsoft’s strategy, laid out. They’re planning on leveraging the addictive success of the beloved Xbox brand to sell us on what’s potentially their Next Big Thing. Now the question is, will it work? And, how the heck will it work?
The Issue of Control
Other than the Xbox brand name, when someone walks out of the house with Kinect Glasses, what will disguise them from any AR experience? Theoretically, someone could play Halo at the airport, or Gears of War on the train. But how could they control those games? With a touch-screen device? With a traditional Xbox controller? The Kinect V2 is a 3-D sensor that looks to complement the glasses well, but that piece is left at home. There’s no mention of a retinal tracker. Aside from Xbox games, how would you control any experience? Nothing in these documents hints at mobile control schemes that will be integral to its success.
The Compatibility With Windows Phones
If Kinect glasses have an app store, that opens up a whole platform for developers to tinker. But the Xbox brand has never totally gelled with the Windows Mobile/Windows 8 brands. It’s a point that Microsoft has been dealing with aggressively, revealing second screen technologies at E3 just a few weeks back, and building Xbox into Windows 8 media streaming. An app store alone won’t necessarily be enough to bridge the gap between a Windows Mobile experience and a Kinect Glasses experience, let alone an iPhone and Microsoft’s set of glasses. Can you answer a call? Can you play Angry Birds off the side of a building? Where do my games and contacts save—on my glasses or my phone?
With Project Glass, we said it would be the slightest design touches that would dictate Google’s success—how does it feel to wear and use them? Do notifications make noise? Are text windows opaque?
With Kinect Glasses, the challenge for Microsoft only seems larger. The Xbox Live platform is fantastic for games and videos, but Microsoft doesn’t have the massive, mobile Android infrastructure to fall back on to mitigate app compatibility. Microsoft is also designing a product that has to work in two very diverse spaces—living rooms and the entire rest of the world—for immersive gaming plus all that other stuff we expect to be able to do on our mobiles—plus, hopefully, some unbelievable new capabilities that none of us has even imagined before.
Microsoft may or may not have the perfect answer to each of these issues. Augmented reality, even with Google and Microsoft pursuing it with such vigor, may or may not succeed with its first swing. The Newton was a failed device, just like Microsoft’s tablets from the early 2000s. None of that made the iPad any less of a success when we saw a tablet done right for the first time.
That said, how exciting is it to see the titans of tech swinging for the fences, crafting crazy computers for our eyeballs? So long as they look like Wayfarers, at least.
[Hat tip: fwd]
[Illustration: Eric Jeckert]