Microsoft debuts their latest mixed reality device at Mobile World Congress 2019.
“When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see, and this is what has happened with the HoloLens,” said Satya Nadella as he kicked off the much-anticipated launch, over 3 years after the device was first launched in 2016.
Let’s be honest, 2016 seems like a very long time ago now. The first time I tried the HoloLens I knew I was experiencing the first generation of a game-changing technology.
Over these past three and a half years, Microsoft has been listening to their customers, claims HoloLens inventor and Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman as he took his turn on stage. Those enterprise customers have enthusiastically been adopting Microsoft’s mixed reality technology in a variety of productivity, collaboration, training, and visualization use-cases; while Microsoft, in turn, have been satisfying the wish-list of those dedicated customers.
With the HoloLens 2, Microsoft has made what appears to be a more consumer-friendly device than its original predecessor – although the company themselves dare not utter the “c-word” just yet. So, here’s the full low-down on Microsoft’s newest immersive device:
It’s all about the Cloud.
It’s no secret that Microsoft’s mixed reality strategy is centered around its Intelligent Cloud, and the Intelligent Edge; therefore the HoloLens team has worked very closely with Azure to bring it all together in one sleek package.
“Building on the unique capabilities of the original HoloLens, HoloLens 2 is the ultimate intelligent edge device. And when coupled with existing and new Azure services, HoloLens 2 becomes even more capable, right out of the box,” says Julia White, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft.
One of the more surprising announcements during the presentation, Spatial Anchors serve as a way to share three-dimensional images compatible with Apple’s ARKit as well as Google’s ARCore. Integration with these popular AR tools could open up the headset to a massive community of independent creators who have flocked to the developer-friendly platforms.
FOV! Yes, let’s get that out of the way. Microsoft states they’ve more than doubled the field-of-view on the HoloLens 2. Admittedly, I’m one of those people who thinks that those folk who were really hung up on the limited FOV of the original HoloLens were kind of missing the point; most people got over the limitation as their brain compensated for the initial weirdness after a few hours of use.
That said, having a wider FOV will undoubtedly make the mixed reality on the device appear smoother and more dynamic, resulting in an overall improved experience. Crucially, Microsoft has done this while maintaining their industry-leading pixel density of 47 pixels per degree of sight. To top it off, they also promise that their new display system enables them to achieve these improvements in performance even at low power.
But that elusive quality of “immersiveness” is not about the field-of-view or pixel count so much as the way that the digital elements actually interact with you and the environment. In the demo given by Julia Schartz, Senior Researcher at Microsoft, we got a glimpse of what these “instinctual interactions” feel like. This boils down to better eye-tracking – where you can trigger an action merely by directing your gaze at a specific spot, and better gesture recognition (in the demo, the device also scanned Julia’s hands, adjusting to their particular shape and size), rather than relying on the very specific “pinch” action which the original HoloLens relied upon.
Users can also log in with Windows Hello enterprise-grade authentication through iris recognition, which plugs into the company’s overall message of prioritizing privacy and security as well as intuitive usability.
When you’re getting as much ROI from a product as most enterprise customers get from the HoloLens, they forgive a lot of discomfort. That doesn’t mean improvements won’t be welcome though, and Microsoft has clearly put in a lot of work in making this new HMD something that people can wear for longer periods of time without receiving an ugly bruise on their nose or having the headset slip about on their sweaty heads.
HoloLens 2 has a much more balanced center of gravity (less nose-heavy) thanks to the use of carbon fiber and a new mechanism that lets you put it on without readjusting a crank at the back; “like putting on your favorite hat,” according to Kipman. Like the first HoloLens the device also enables glasses wearers to simply slot the device in front of their spectacles (distinct advantage compared to Magic Leap). And – one of my favourite touches – when you’re done, you can just flip up the visor and switch back to the real world.
“We’ve improved the thermal management with new vapor chamber technology and accounted for the wide physiological variability in the size and shape of human heads by designing HoloLens 2 to comfortably adjust and fit almost anyone,” says White.
At the end of the day, every time Microsoft sells a HoloLens, it does so on the assumption that the business making that purchase is going to get some value in return. This usually comes in spades, but it can take a while, given on-boarding and customization demands. But with the accelerated rollout of Microsoft mixed reality applications like Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, Dynamics 365 Layout, and the newly announced Dynamics 365 Guides applications – in addition to the device’s in-box value, the company promises to deliver value across a range of industries and use-cases. Which brings us to the million-dollar question: How much will all this magic cost?
Well, anybody expecting a radical price drop is going to be disappointed. The HoloLens Bundle still costs about $3,500 to buy outright. On the other hand, the Mixed Reality as a Service rental packages start from as little as $125 a month, which makes them affordable even to most SMEs. This is specially true given how much effort Microsoft has put into making partner content available so that – in Kipman’s words – those enterprises can start getting their ROI from day one.
Azure Kinect developer kit.
The Microsoft HoloLens was a direct result of the Kinect, which was also Kipman’s baby, as well as the original answer to his question of how we could make humans and computer interact in a more natural and intuitive way. Now, that legacy comes full-circle with the Azure Kinect DK – a developer kit that combines the time-of-flight depth sensor developed for HoloLens 2, a high-def RGB camera, and spatial audio with a 7-microphone circular array to enable the development of advanced computer vision and speech solutions with Azure. This means the device not only records, but also sees, hears and understands its surroundings with unprecedented accuracy.
This translates into enabling smarter solutions for a range of use-cases. Such as with healthcare provider Ocuvera, which is currently using this technology to prevent patients from taking a fall while in hospitals. With Azure Kinect, the environmental precursors to a fall are determined and a nurse is notified to get to these patients before they actually fall. Initially available in the U.S. and China, the Azure Kinect DK is available for preorder today for $399.
Dynamics 365 Guides
Dynamics 365 Guides is a new mixed reality app available in preview starting today which enhances learning via step-by-step instructions that guide employees through the tools and parts they’ll need to handle in their work environment and how to use them in realastic situations. In addition to the experience of using Guides on HoloLens, a Guides PC app makes it easy to create interactive content, attach photos and videos, import 3D models, and customize training to turn institutional knowledge into a repeatable learning tool.
HoloLens has already been used in many challenging working environments, from construction sites and operating rooms, to the International Space Station. To do that, it had to pass the basic impact tests from several protective eyewear standards used in North America and Europe. It has been tested and found to conform to the basic impact protection requirements of ANSI Z87.1, CSA Z94.3, and EN 166. With HoloLens 2, however, they’re making that process smoother by introducing the Microsoft HoloLens Customization Program to enable customers and partners to customize HoloLens 2 to fit their particular environmental needs.
The first company to take advantage of that program is Trimble, one of its long-standing Mixed reality program partners, which recently unveiled the Trimble XR10, a new wearable hard hat device incorporating the HoloLens 2.
Commitment to openness.
Microsoft wrapped up its presentation by outlining its commitment to fostering an open MR ecosystem.
“We believe that for an ecosystem to truly thrive there should be no barriers to innovation or customer choice,” said Kipman. HoloLens, he continued, will embrace the principles of open stores, open browsers, and open developer platforms. In other words, down with the “walled garden” approach favored by companies such as Apple and Oculus.
During the presentation, Mozilla announced that a prototype of their Firefox Reality browser would be heading to the device. Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, then took to the stage to say that Unreal Engine 4 support would also be arriving on the HoloLens 2. “Our success lies in the success of our partners and customers and the entire ecosystem,” concluded Kipman.
In the end, this will most likely be the key to how HoloLens 2 eventually transitions from a successful enterprise and productivity tool, to a consumer must-have. In an ecosystem where every organization feels empowered to build and personalize their own digital experiences, Microsoft wants help enable these companies thrive by augmenting their platform to serve a variety of purposes. Today’s announcement gave us a glimpse of an amazing future still in its early conceptual stage. If we’re ever to realize its full potential, it will require the collaborative approaches expressed by companies like Microsoft.
For those who do want to get on board, you can preorder HoloLens 2 starting today. First shipments will begin this May in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia, and New Zealand.