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Did Microsoft Just Introduce the Next Google Glass?

It’s hard to view Microsoft’s demonstration of its HoloLens and not think of Google’s struggling Glass product, whose interactive eyeglasses have been put back on the shelf.

The pitch is fairly simple: Microsoft’s augmented reality headset will overlay images on existing environments — a video screen on a wall, floating buttons for Netflix on a refrigerator, a version of “Minecraft” that can now be played on the living-room floor, surely a major attraction for parents who are tired of picking up or stepping on Lego pieces.

HoloLens will essentially bring to life a 3D version of the Internet in the real world without the need to hold mobile devices like a tablet or smartphone. The wireless headgear operates using voice and gesture controls and includes internal speakers for sound.

It’s the obvious evolution of the Web for a company that wants to make sure its core product, Windows, powers as many devices as possible and remains an instrumental part of its users’ lives — Windows is used by 1.5 billion people around the world.

“Our industry’s progress is punctuated by moments of category creation,” said Microsoft chief Satya Nadella at a press event to introduce HoloLens on Wednesday, from the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. “Windows and holographic computing is one such moment.”

Like HoloLens, Google Glass presented Web-based information to wearers with the intent of creating a mobile version of the Internet that didn’t require staring at a smartphone or tablet.

Several factors hurt the product over the past two years: the $1,500 pricetag, which made it inaccessible for most consumers, and a built-in camera that led to its ban from movie theaters, some restaurants, hospitals and casinos due to concerns over piracy and privacy.

Google Glass isn’t dead. It’s just gone back into development, in Google’s smart-appliance lab, run by Ivy Ross, a veteran marketing executive.

“Glass was in its infancy, and you took those very first steps and taught us how to walk,” Google wrote in a blog post on its Google+ page. “Well, we still have some work to do, but now we’re ready to put on our big kid shoes and learn how to run.”

A second pair of Glass eyewear is expected to be released later this year as part of Google Glass 2.0, with a new gadget expected to be introduced in June at Google’s I/O conference, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But with HoloLens (no price has yet been revealed), Microsoft needs to come up with a reason for consumers to want to slip on an even larger set of frames.

Any effort to make augmented reality less of a gimmick — so far it’s been used by toymakers and marketers to bring action figures and fast food to life — is a bonus.

But Microsoft needs to now prove that there’s an everyday need for HoloLens that Google never did with Glass. It’s the same problem the wearables market has with a slew of wristbands that track steps, count calories and monitor sleep behavior, as well as new smartphones and other smart eyewear hitting the market.

When you’re talking about a category that’s expected to generate $5.1 billion in 2015 (health and fitness devices alone are expected to earn $1.8 billion), it’s obvious there’s a market Microsoft should be playing in.

So are others — Oculus with its Rift, Samsung with its Gear VR and others are all competing for the same eyeballs with their virtual reality eyewear.

The success of HoloLens will come down to just whom Microsoft attracts in the creative community to make it attractive to consumers when the device is ready for mass retail later this year. A fun new version of “Minecraft,” a massively popular gaming franchise Microsoft acquired last year for $2 billion, should help. But it will need more than that.

Microsoft has struggled with marketing great devices before. Its Surface is the perfect combination of tablet and laptop. But an early marketing campaign couldn’t figure out how to simply state it’s a device that can replace your laptop. New ads launched around the third iteration now push that message home.

Windows 10, a new version of Microsoft’s operating system, is a good step toward breathing new life into a company that’s felt a bit tired technologically.

And HoloLens will prove whether Microsoft has become cool enough for consumers to want to wear.

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