Google Glass may have flopped in the marketplace, but Microsoft is pushing its own version of computer eyewear, Microsoft HoloLens.
The surprise announcement came Wednesday at an event meant to advertise Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 10. But the HoloLens, enabled by Windows 10, grabbed all the attention.
Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella described wearing the computer-equipped headset to take a virtual walk on Mars. "It was nothing short of surreal," he said.
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory plan to use hologram-based images beamed to Earth from the Curiosity rover to not only stroll the planet in three dimensions from their Pasadena offices but also control the rover through their actions in virtual space.
Doctors, construction workers, gamers and people who want to watch Netflix while walking around are some potential customers who could find themselves wearing HoloLens soon, Microsoft said.
The HoloLens is similar to a number of augmented and virtual reality products in development. Google Glass used a tiny screen on which users could run apps, but the HoloLens is a more immersive experience. Glass also included a tiny camera, which critics described as creepy. Last week, Google announced it would dial back the marketing of Glass, change it and prepare for a relaunch.
For Microsoft, the HoloLens isn't simply a new wearable computer, it's an attempt to keep its Windows operating system relevant as computing increasingly goes mobile and leaves the desktop behind. The company has relied on sales of Windows software for about a fifth of its revenue in recent years. But its overall consumer licensing revenue has dropped 3.5% over the last two fiscal years as PC sales softened. While Windows still dominates desktops, only a smidgen of those mobile gadgets run on Microsoft, making the company's venture into the emerging market for wearable technology crucial to its future strategy. Whether its early bet begets adoption isn't certain, analysts said.
Earlier this month at the International Consumer Electronics Show, Qualcomm Inc. and Intel Corp. also showed off 3-D overlay technology aimed at similar consumers.
But Microsoft has laid the groundwork to differentiate itself, said Merv Adrian, lead Microsoft analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. Unlike the virtual reality goggles from Facebook's Oculus VR division, for example, the HoloLens can both immerse the wearer in a different world and merge virtual objects into reality, said Adrian, who tried HoloLens on Tuesday at an event for analysts.
"One can foresee this being really extraordinary," he said.
On Wednesday, holograms topped the list of capabilities Microsoft highlighted for the latest version of the Windows operating system, Windows 10. Expected to launch later this year, Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for one year for people running Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. The new features were being teased before testers across the world receive them.
For the first time, the operating system's look and feel harmonize across devices. For instance, swiping to delete an email in Microsoft Outlook on a phone or tablet will work just as well as clicking and dragging to get rid of an email when using a laptop or desktop. Cortana, a virtual assistant similar to Apple's Siri, will come to desktops and laptops because of Windows 10.
Updates will be sent frequently. Terry Myerson, the executive who oversees Windows development, called it a "monumental" step for the company.
"The question 'What version are you running?' will cease to make sense," he said.
The much-ridiculed Internet Explorer Web browser is undergoing a makeover. Among the inclusions is the ability to see the weather forecast by typing just "wea" in the address bar and a reading-list pane that saves Web pages for later browsing (even when a computer isn't connected to the Internet).
The previous Windows release, Windows 8, annoyed customers for its emphasis on a grid layout and "touch" as an input.
Last September, Microsoft announced it would skip "9" and jump to "10" as it combined different patches of Windows — some built for phones, some for tablets and some for desktops — into one unified database of programming code.
On Wednesday, the company said Windows 10 would extend to its Xbox One gaming console and a new tablet with a wall-hangable 84-inch screen. The linkage means a child using his or her laptop and a game controller from a bedroom could play a game stored on an Xbox resting in a living room.
If all goes as Microsoft plans, a developer could produce one app and have it work instantly on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and television screens. Chief competitors Apple and Google can't claim that.
"We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows and loving Windows," Nadella told the media Wednesday.
Microsoft said the cordless HoloLens headgear would become available about the same time as Windows 10. It didn't discuss specific figures on weight, battery life or cost.
The project had been kept under wraps for several years, according to HoloLens boss Alex Kipman, who also led development of the Kinect motion sensor. A select group cranked away at HoloLens in a laboratory beneath the company's visitor center in Redmond, Wash.