The mixed reality gamble: How the big tech companies are placing their bets

Finding the next big thing is hard. Billions are spent and wasted every year in its pursuit.  Even with these large resources most tech companies fail to strike on anything interesting. The amount spent and ink spilled on the smartwatch, for example, should have all but assured its success but other than the initial boost from all the PR, it has floundered in the market.  Companies are desperate for that next great thing but the cost of failure can be high in both dollars spent and reputation.  

Some believe the next big thing is Mixed Reality. Certainly, Magic Leap believe it. But this is by no means a sure thing. Even if the technology delivers on the expectations, the public might not be willing to bite.  Yet, it cannot be ignored.  Right now, all the major tech companies are placing their bets on the potential of an MR future.  Let's take a look at where they are placing their chips. 

Microsoft

Microsoft is at the forefront of mixed reality with Hololens.  You can buy a development kit today and see exactly how it works and what it can do.  They have clearly sunk significant resource into the project and continue to push the technology forward.  But this has become somewhat more complicated in recent months when Microsoft announced Windows Holographic. In traditional Microsoft style, they are creating and hoping to license the operating system for a mixed reality headset. This will solve a large problem for OEMs wanting to make their own headset and positions Microsoft to profit regardless of who can create the best headset as long as it is running Windows Holographic.  

While this is a smart move regardless it does show a lack of faith in Hololens as a product.  I would speculate that they have hit certain road blocks with Hololens, in particular with resolution and field of view.  They know overcoming these will be challenging and potentially a large distraction from their current business.  Letting the rest of the market sort these issues out will save them that trouble.  

In either case, Microsoft is making a heavy bet on MR.  If it takes off they will be well positioned to influence and profit from the future of Mixed Reality.  

Magic Leap

Well this one is obvious.  They are betting the farm on their mixed reality headset to be a success. If it flops, so does the company. 

But is it really that simple?  Did they really convince investors to give that much money on such a risky gamble?  I think Magic Leap can be successful even if their headset flops. They own a number of fundamentally new technology whose applications will likely go beyond an MR headset. Not only that, they will have the only manufacturing line that is able to mass produce this technology.  You could envision building television or smartphone screens using the fiber scanning projector. The advanced optics could similarly be incorporated into car windscreens and VR products. They could licence the technology to other MR headsets perhaps using windows holographic. Magic Leap is betting on hardware in the same way that Microsoft is betting on software.  

With that in mind, I envision a potential future where Magic Leap's headset flops and the internet explodes with "I told you so" articles about what a failure they are.  Meanwhile, they start raking in money from the licensing of their many technologies.  This has put me in the odd position of being cynical of potential future cynicism. So I'll stop there.  

Google

It could be argued that Google kicked off the current push for MR with Google Glass. Glass, while never seeing a consumer release, created huge excitement for the potential of the technology. When the product couldn't deliver on expectations, that excitement soured.  But the original excitement was real. It showed companies like Microsoft and people like Rony Abovitz that the public is interested in this technology, if you can only deliver on the expectations people have. So while never being a consumer success we still have a lot to thank Glass for in terms of pushing technology forward.   

Fast forward to today and we see Google investing heavily in Magic Leap while simultaneously pursuing their own technology. Google has always been about creating technology for everyone as opposed to just the high end of the market and we see this in how they are looking at mixed reality. Project Tango is aiming to bring SLAM processing to any smartphone.  While projects like Soli hope to bring gesture recognition to a much smaller form factor.  By combining Daydream with Tango and Soli they could build a Google Cardboard like mixed reality headset that could introduce the world to the concept without the need to buy expensive hardware beyond what they already own.

With the stake that Google owns in Magic Leap, they could sit back and do nothing while MR takes off and still make a tidy profit off of it. Meanwhile they continue to be good technology citizens by fostering developers in this new field and pushing MR forward to the masses.  

Apple

No one knows what Apple is doing. They are certainly working on something, they would be crazy not to, but they won't talk about it until it is ready to go.  If history is any tell, they will wait until others have tested the market. Apple tends look at what consumers see as pain points in an existing products and then bring out their own product addressing those issues. I don't want to be too down on Apple but I just don't believe they will bring anything to the table in the infancy of MR. They don't have the same R&D as some of the other companies and tend to be far more conservative when bringing out new products. I would love to see Apple open up more and give back to the developer community by showing what they are working on but traditionally this is not something Apple does. We will just have to wait and see.