The original Microsoft HoloLens, above, and Apple’s new Vision Pro, below. (Microsoft and Apple Photos)

Some of Microsoft’s biggest missteps over the years have come not from being too late but rather too early, leaving the door open for competitors — especially Apple, it seems — to popularize a product category years later, when the technology and the market are ready.

  • Pocket PC … iPhone
  • Tablet PC … iPad
  • HoloLens … Vision Pro?

That last one sure looks like a possibility after Apple unveiled its new augmented reality headset this week. The device, which looks like a pair of high-tech ski goggles, lets users navigate with gestures in a manner very similar to Microsoft’s mixed reality headset, the first version of which was unveiled in 2015 and shipped in 2016.

The similarities even extend to the language used by Apple CEO Tim Cook on Monday, and then-HoloLens leader Alex Kipman at a Microsoft event in 2015.

Cook: “Vision Pro is a new kind of computer that augments reality by seamlessly blending the real world with the digital world. … You can see hear and interact with digital content just like it’s in your physical space. And you control Vision Pro using the most natural and intuitive tools: your eyes, hands and voice.”

Kipman: “A few years ago we started asking ourselves … could Windows make your digital life more powerful by connecting it with your real life? … Could we place your digital content right into your world, right into your life? The HPU [Holographic Processing Unit] gives us the ability to understand where you’re looking to understand your gestures, to understand your voice.”

Vision Pro ships next year for $3,500, the same price as HoloLens 2.

The future of the Microsoft headset is unclear after the departure of Kipman, the HoloLens leader, and layoffs on the HoloLens team earlier this year amid Microsoft’s broader cutbacks.

But Apple will also be competing with the likes of Facebook parent Meta, which makes the Rift VR headsets; and Magic Leap, which released the second version of its AR headset last year, led by former Microsoft execs Peggy Johnson (CEO) and Julie Larson-Green (CTO).

Apple hopes to popularize what it calls spatial computing by using Vision Pro to supersize the screens around us in the virtual world, with strong connections to iPad and Mac.

It’s also taking a new approach with a feature called EyeSight.

“When a person approaches someone wearing Vision Pro, the device feels transparent — letting the user see them while also displaying the user’s eyes,” the company said in the Vision Pro announcement. “When a user is immersed in an environment or using an app, EyeSight gives visual cues to others about what the user is focused on.”

That may be the Vision Pro’s most important feature, says John Tomizuka, co-founder and CTO of Seattle-based tech company Taqtile, on this week’s episode of the GeekWire Podcast.

John Tomizuka, co-founder and CTO of Seattle-based tech company Taqtile.

Taqtile, which makes augmented reality work instruction software, has been working on HoloLens applications since the beginning, and the company said this week that it plans develop for the Vision Pro, as well.

EyeSight promises to make the device less socially awkward for the people using it, allowing them to interact with those around them.

That’s “the brilliant move that they made,” Tomizuka said, explaining that Apple is focused on “making this accessible and acceptable for people to use in a more widespread way.”

He cited the past precedent of Apple Airpods, which might have looked weird when first introduced, but have since become ubiquitous.

“They have a track record of making these things more socially acceptable, which is super important for our industry,” he said.

Tomizuka said the adoption curve for Vision Pro could resemble that of the Apple Watch, where the initial version doesn’t reach widespread usage, but still gives Apple important feedback that allows the company to iterate and ultimately make the device more popular and useful.

“As it gets smaller, faster, better, I really think they’ll own this market to a certain degree,” he said, “and it will heavily impact our lives.”

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