If you thought the future of wearables was limited to Apple‘s adventure on the wrist and Google’s stalled Glass experiment, think again. Microsoft is making the uncharacteristic move of driving into a new product category without its main competitors leading them there.

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Windows 10 hopes to make holographic computing a reality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At its Windows 10 launch event today, Microsoft unexpectedly unveiled its HoloLens technology, a cross-platform project combining new hardware and software that makes holographic computing a reality. That spans wearables, Windows, and every single media device you can imagine, crammed into one futuristic announcement that amounts to a moonshot by a brand suffering from perennially playing catch up.

To come back to its competitors for a second, Microsoft seems to be channeling the best of both into HoloLens, a project that could make or break the Redmond-based company’s return to relevance. Apple is of course the flag bearer for creating new product categories (or at least dragging embryonic ones into the mainstream with panache), from the iPod early on to the iPhone creating or smartphone obsession and the iPad expanding that to the tablet. Google, meanwhile, is less adept at delivering new hardware but is renowned for its commitment to “moonshot” projects, some of which drive into important new software worlds.

On the surface (no pun intended) Microsoft is achieving both of these in one swoop, bringing together a working holographic software environment, underpinned by Windows 10, and the hardware required to operate within it. 

After a slow start explaining the basics of Windows 10 and some general platitudes about mobile computing, the Microsoft event shifted into overdrive by unveiling not only , but what the company hopes will be its visionary charge into the world of holographic computing.

Ending with CEO Satya Nadella’s vision for his company’s rejuvenated brand, he noted that these various technologies – mobile, wearables, hologram devices and the software that they run – must come together to serve a world in which there will be more devices than people. Summing up the crux of the technological shift that we’re currently experiencing, Nadella noted that “the mobility of the environment is what’s important, not the mobility of the device.”

The focus was on engineering applications – which is understandable given the company’s partnership with NASA and the exciting projects that the two are working on – but the potential for artistic expression through this new technology is also exciting. Collaborative environments become all the more real, bridging gaps of distance and access for every kind of creator, while the opportunities for visual artists and movie-makers are immense.

Some of this we’ve seen before with virtual reality and the likes of Oculus Rift and 3D design/printing, but the unification of software and hardware under one of the world’s most experienced computing companies can’t fail to stoke interest – maybe even excitement – from even Microsoft’s most vociferous critics.