2016 Tech Impact Awards: Virtual/Augmented Reality

Winner: Microsoft HoloLens; Silver Awards: Envelop VR and Valve Corporation

Microsoft Hololens
Location: Redmond | Employees: N/A
The slim mixed-reality headset and the software infrastructure built around it is far more than a fully untethered holographic computer, according to Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman. At a recent TED talk unveiling, striding on three-dimensional projections of Martian terrain, he claimed it as a step toward “tools that enhance the human experience.” Even without such visionary goals, the milestone HoloLens device is finding practical use. Engineers at Volvo now employ HoloLens to design and test auto parts in real three-dimensional space. Mechanics and pilots at Japan Airlines are beginning to train through HoloLens simulations. Some medical students at Case Western Reserve University can explore human anatomy through hologram specimens. Kipman led the HoloLens development effort, building on lessons learned creating the Kinect motion input device for Xbox. HoloLens is available as a $3,000 kit for developers, and Microsoft hopes to encourage widespread commercial adoption. Kipman’s hopes, inspired by how NASA scientists can now explore planets holographically, are even higher, aiming to “transform the ways we interact, the ways we work and the ways we play.”

Envelop VR
Location: Seattle | Employees: Under 50
The screen of a Windows PC is too flat for this software company, which aims to bring desktop computing into a virtual reality workspace. Envelop VR deems the desktop environment as the place to fully immerse Windows users in 3D product designs, to visualize data from spreadsheets or even to program other VR applications. A recent $5.5 million venture round with participation by Google Ventures will help this pioneering firm provide the coding glue to make VR headsets a practical workplace tool. 

Valve Corporation
Location: Bellevue | Employees: 300+
Since this game platform company announced a partnership with smartphone manufacturer HTC last year, the consumer-priced Vive VR headset has been drawing praise. Valve’s laser-based head and controller tracking is proving innovative, and its early applications for virtual reality painting, games and simulation have been exciting. Valve’s recent announcement that Vive’s tracking sensors will be available for royalty-free licensing to third-party products hints at disruptions to come. And the company’s lease of new offices in Bellevue, more than doubling its floor space, reflect confident growth.

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