Microsoft has revealed the second iteration of its mixed reality HoloLens headset, debuting the unimaginatively named HoloLens 2 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this weekend.
Unveiled by CEO Satya Nadella, the HoloLens 2 abandons the Intel processor of the first generation, running instead on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850. It boasts an expanded field of view and a massively increased optical resolution, jumping from roughly 720p to 2K resolution per eye. That allows for far more detailed holograms to be displayed and for users to see them from broader angles, rather than having to remain focused on very specific points.
The headset is also lighter than its predecessor – made from carbon-fibre materials and with a re-balanced centre of gravity – and more comfortable, with an easier to adjust fit. The design allows users to wear prescription spectacles underneath, with the visor sliding over them, and features improved cooling, making it suitable to wear for extended periods.
To all of which, your reaction may be “wait, there was a HoloLens 1?” – and unless you work in certain industries, that would be a reasonable response. The average consumer’s experience of mixed or augmented reality (AR) is still largely limited to Pokémon Go or Snapchat using camera overlays to drop virtual objects over the real world.
In contrast, Microsoft has focused its attention on delivering high-end AR for business use. The original HoloLens launched in 2016, available at the time to developers for $3000 (£2719), and has spent the last three years carving a niche for itself away from public view and with little in the way of competition.
Morgan Sindall Group was an early adopter of HoloLens tech, using it in the development of the new Barbara Hepworth Building at the University of Huddersfield and to trial mixed reality installation checks. Elsewhere, studios such as London-based Visualise have used AR – and VR – to create apps and content for clients including the BBC, Google, and the Van Gogh Museum, allowing people to experience stories in immersive fashion and visit far off locations, while Leeds’ Cooperative Innovations serves as an immersive media consultancy and develops its own games.
It’s companies such as these that Microsoft is continuing to pitch the HoloLens 2 at, rather than making steps to bring the hardware to a wider market. The price point – starting at $3000 (£2678) – keeps it firmly out of the average user’s hands, while the usage examples served up at MWC remained focused on applications ranging from guided surgery and automotive repair to theatrical set design. But has Microsoft delivered something that actually meets the needs and expectations of businesses using HoloLens?
“[HoloLens] version one has already driven efficiencies in the way we design and build schemes, and it holds great promise for the wider construction industry,” said Lee Ramsey, Director of Digital Construction at Morgan Sindall. “But we’d like to see Microsoft release a toolkit to enable users to bring models into the device, without coding or gaming engine knowledge.”
“We have been waiting for more field of view from AR headsets – it’s nearly always the first thing people comment on,” adds Henry Stuart, CEO and co-founder of Visualise. “It breaks the immersion or suspension of disbelief if you keep having to move your head to see active elements of the scene in the tiny letterbox we have been afforded to date. It looks like they have hit on the very things we were hoping for.”
Another area HoloLens 2 improves on is eye-tracking and interaction, with integrated AI gauging how users are manipulating the holograms projected by the headset. Playing a virtual piano was one example, or tapping floating buttons to make menu selections.
“It’s great to see the field of view, hand tracking and ergonomic improvements being made to the Hololens 2,” says Simon Barratt, co-founder of Cooperative Innovations. “The addition of eye-tracking is great for many applications. We’ve been simulating eye movement for our Social XR applications for a while using an AI and having the actual information about where a person is looking will be a boost for these applications.”
Morgan Sindall’s Ramsey echoed this, saying that the improvement of interaction and gestures would be an “obvious progression”, that could give users the “ability to automatically align, or position, models in the real world.”
However, Microsoft’s biggest problem in the long run might not be that not enough people are using its headsets. It could be that it’s attracting the wrong kind of customer. In November, the company signed a $479m (£367m) contract with the US military to develop HoloLens applications for armed forces. The controversial decision has already caused tensions within Microsoft, with more than 100 employees pointedly choosing MWC weekend and HoloLens 2’s public reveal to write to Nadella and Microsoft President Brad Smith, decrying the tech giant’s pact.
A group calling itself Microsoft Workers 4 Good published the letter on Twitter, demanding the cancellation of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System contract, and called for “stricter ethical guidelines” in how HoloLens technology is used.
“We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used,” the letter says. The group goes on to decry the aim of “increased lethality”, and says that although Microsoft has previously licensed technology to the US military, “it has never crossed the line into weapons development” until now.
Given Microsoft aggressively pursued the government contract though, beating out chief AR rival Magic Leap in the process, it’s not terribly likely that the staffers’ letter will alter the company’s direction on it. Neither Microsoft as a company nor Nadella or Smith individually have yet responded to the letter.
Potentially disturbing combat applications aside, augmented reality in any form may have a long way to go before being battlefield ready. Despite the improvements to HoloLens 2, there’s still a sense that AR is playing catch up to VR, especially given the latter is on the cusp of delivering human eye resolution quality. Sure, it costs £4590 at the moment, but as costs drop, adoption will soar. What will augmented or mixed reality have to do to keep up?
“As technology improves, I think we’ll see a shift towards smart glasses, rather than fully fledged headsets,” says Ramsey. “We’ll see even wider adoption across the construction industry when AR can be experienced to the same level through a tablet; you’d have lower barriers to entry and it could be accessed by multiple users in real-time.”
Stuart agrees, saying “The Hololens is simply a stepping stone in the journey to wearable AR. It’s an early step too, for AR to reach its potential and be comfortable, subtle, ubiquitous and overwhelmingly useful will need to be tenfold more powerful; smaller, to mimic fashionable glasses; and not have a stigma to carry.”
Yet Barratt thinks the key to bringing people on board with AR is in familiarity, and Microsoft has a secret weapon to do just that – Windows.
“I think Microsoft did a good job bringing Windows into their mixed reality devices, and ultimately that is a way to reduce the transitional stress for users,” he says. “Magic Leap didn’t really please people with their operating system so I think Microsoft benefits from their years of expertise there. [That said,] it would be nice to see Microsoft take a lead from Magic Leap and look to fund content from developers already working in the VR and AR space – the software is just as important as the hardware at this stage.”
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