Microsoft’s HoloLens future is in doubt after the project leader leaves
Microsoft Corp. announced that the executive in charge of its HoloLens goggles is departing the business, casting doubt on the project’s future.
In late May, current and former Microsoft employees accused Alex Kipman of inappropriate behaviour toward female coworkers in an Insider piece. Kipman had been with the Redmond, Washington-based software giant since 2001. According to two sources familiar with the situation, he was the public face of the HoloLens endeavour, and his departure comes at a critical time for the project, as Microsoft considers whether or not to continue building its own AR gear.
HoloLens hardware will now be overseen by Panos Panay, who heads up Microsoft’s Surface computer division, while Jeff Teper, a corporate vice president managing areas like the Teams collaboration product, will take over the software part of the group, the people said. Microsoft Cloud chief Scott Guthrie detailed the changes on Tuesday in a memo sent to executive staff, according to the people, who declined to be named because the company isn’t publicly discussing the decision.
Before HoloLens, Kipman had stints at Microsoft’s Windows and Xbox teams and was one of its longest-tenured employees. The Insider report alleged that longtime executives at the company like Kipman had been allowed to engage in verbal and sexual harassment of workers.
The revisions come as Microsoft awaits the outcome of a $21.9 billion contract that might determine if there is sufficient demand for the HoloLens to continue development. The company had committed to give the US Army with a customised version of the head-worn device as part of a 10-year deal that included up to 121,500 goggles, as well as spare parts, logistics, and programme management assistance. However, the project has not gone smoothly, and the Army announced in April that it may only spend half of the total budget. Last month, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth expressed confidence that the system’s faults, known as IVAS, had been ironed out.
Microsoft has other commercial customers for HoloLens, but needs the Army deal to secure enough scale for the product, the people said.
If the Army deal doesn’t come to fruition, Microsoft may have to re-evaluate whether to keep making HoloLens hardware. It already has a deal with Samsung Electronics Co. that could enable the South Korean electronics giant to start making hardware for Microsoft’s corporate customers, the people said. Kipman, as one of the HoloLens’ original executives and an outspoken evangelist for the technology, was committed to the device being made in-house in a way that Panay may not be, they added.
At a Windows presentation in 2015, Microsoft presented what was then the top-secret HoloLens project to considerable hoopla, displaying prototype applications such as 3-D Minecraft, which allowed users to blast through walls and coffee tables to expose lava and caves, as well as a holographic conferencing system. However, the company has never been able to bring the headset’s price below a few thousand dollars, and as a result, it is mostly focused on business applications rather than consumer ones.
The questions about HoloLens’ future come as Microsoft tries to figure out its strategy for the so-called metaverse, a concept for future computing built around users living, working and playing in interconnected virtual worlds. HoloLens had been seen as a key pillar of that strategy and changes to it might push Microsoft to focus its metaverse development on software.
Much of the early metaverse work Microsoft has shown also works with headsets from other companies and relies on software like the Teams app — where Microsoft has pitched the idea of holographic avatars in meetings. That’s part of why software oversight of HoloLens will move under Teper, as his group already houses some of the company’s metaverse engineers.