Last week Microsoft’s HoloLens headset got a live demonstration that’s was impressive enough to justify some cautious optimism in the augmented reality device. Now, that cautious optimism is tempered by remarks from Microsoft itself. The New York Times reports that Microsoft’s own executives are already cautioning potential consumers that the HoloLens will not be a cheap piece of technology, and will be “significantly more expensive than a game console.”
Since the average game console is already $400, this probably means the average price of the HoloLens when it finally goes on sale (which, by the way, is a nebulous “within the Windows 10 timeframe”), will be closer to $1000, possibly even more than that. That’s not actually that unusual since premium laptops and desktop computers regularly break the $1000 barrier, and the HoloLens is a very new device, with a lot of experimental technology packed into it.
That sounds like bad news for gamers, or at least, most gamers that don’t have $1000 to throw around just on a gaming peripheral. In actuality, however, this is probably good news for gamers, and certainly a positive sign from Microsoft, because it means they are very, very serious about making HoloLens work.
Stop for a moment and consider what the HoloLens is supposed to be. This is a portable, worn computing device. It doesn’t pull data from an existing server in your home aside from getting data from the Internet, all the software and storage is onboard, like any other computing device. It’s wireless and doesn’t require power cords, it has its own camera. Most crucially, it has an array of sensor systems that measure both the space you are in, as well your movements within that space. All of this technology—squeezed down into something you can comfortably wear on your head—doesn’t sound cheap.
We already have a precedent for this sort of big promise in interactivity, and that precedent is a cautionary tale. I’m speaking, of course, of Kinect, again from Microsoft. If you watch the aspirational trailer showing off the device now, it’s laughable just how far the marketing was from the actual reality of the device. One of the big reasons for that gap was cost. Microsoft had to severely limit power of its components to keep manufacturing costs down, and pass those savings onto the consumer in the form of a “reasonable” retail price. The final result was that the “You are the controller” mantra of Kinect was never practical or convenient.
Microsoft does not want to make the same mistake with the HoloLens. One of the chief reasons for that is because the HoloLens also has many, many, MANY industrial/professional applications, and in the world of industrial grade equipment, companies are willing to pay much more money if the product delivers the results it promises. They’ve also learned their lesson from Apple; people are willing to pay a premium if the device actually works well and offers a new, productive experience. Both the RROD fiasco of the Xbox 360 and continuing decline of Kinect’s relevance have proven that a product that doesn’t work—but is affordable—is not going to win the war for consumers. HoloLens has incredible promise, but it NEEDS to work well. If what it needs to work well is more expensive components that drive its cost up, Microsoft, in a pleasant change of pace, is willing to embrace this, rather than cannibalize the technology to make sure even the lowest common denominator can afford it.
This is definitely a step in the right direction. If Microsoft can get the HoloLens technology working in new, innovative and reliable ways, the fact that it’s too expensive for most will be just a temporary barrier. Bringing the cost down is just a matter of time, and the audience will be ready to be embrace the cheaper model if they can get wowed by its initial, more expensive debut.