I’m pretty jaded when it comes to ‚revolutionary‘ tech, but Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 genuinely blew my mind. The experience isn’t perfect, but it’s a huge step up from the first-gen model.
After using it, I can tell you that Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is the most amazing thing at MWC19. The new augmented-reality headset busts through the limitations of the first-gen HoloLens and brings virtual objects into the real world in a compelling, easy way.
I’ve had a bunch of HoloLens demos over the past few days. First, I tried the video-collaboration app Spatial on a HoloLens 1. Then, I repaired a machine using PTC’s Vuforia on HoloLens 2, and tried out the HoloLens 2’s basic software shell.
The difference in experience between the two models is massive. Spatial is an amazingly cool app that lets you collaborate with co-workers‘ photo-realistic avatars in virtual rooms. You can throw PowerPoints on the walls and work on 3D models together. (You can also overlay avatars on top of real people, which is reminiscent of a particularly creepy scene in Blade Runner 2049.)
But on HoloLens 1, you’re constantly squinting and turning your head to see what’s going on through a very small window. Spatial’s 3D audio helps: even if you can’t see a co-worker, you hear their voice coming from the correct direction and you can turn your head to find them. But it’s perpetually a little frustrating to look around, see the room filled with interesting information, and only be able to see a little of it at a time.
HoloLens 2 changes that. The wider field of view means you can actually see enough of what’s going on to be able to work, and the much lighter headset is easier on the neck. Being able to freely push buttons and manipulate objects is another game changer.
Microsoft engineers pointed out that apps will be able to use eye-tracking information as well, which could translate into more lifelike avatars with which you could actually make eye contact. In the demos I saw, eye tracking was mostly used to scroll through instructional text while your hands were busy; when you’re repairing a gear (HoloLens users seem to be perpetually on the verge of repairing a gear in some kind of industrial equipment), you don’t want to have to let go of anything to turn the page in the instruction manual.
With HoloLens 2, I walked easily around a room, spotting holographic objects, picking them up and moving them. They respected walls and tables, but not gravity: you could stick one in mid-air and look at its bottom, but not force it through a wall. I didn’t have to squint or tilt my head or use an artificial pinching motion. Things felt just close enough to real.
I’ve used Magic Leap, too, and other industrial AR glasses. HoloLens gives you more. The experience isn’t perfect. Rotating objects in space was just a little bit trickier than I had expected, and of course the 52-degree field of view doesn’t actually take up your whole field of vision. But wow, this is the best thing of its kind by a long shot.
It’s insanely frustrating to not be able to show you what I saw, because what I saw is so amazing. I can only say: I’ve been coming to this show since 2005, and I’m a little jaded. I never wait on lines anymore. I see a lot of phones. HoloLens 2 was worth the 45-minute wait.
Holographic, Not 5G
I sat down with Greg Sullivan, Microsoft’s director of communications for mixed reality, to chat about the HoloLens. Greg and I go way back; he used to head Windows Mobile development when new Windows Mobile versions were the big event at MWC . I’m saying that because HoloLens feels like Microsoft’s next-generation operating system. It feels like Microsoft leapfrogged out of the smartphone era into the next one, and HoloLens 2 might be its Windows 3.0.
This being MWC, though, it was a little weird that nobody around Microsoft was talking about 5G. „High bandwidth, low latency network connections will be leveraged by mixed-reality intelligent edge devices,“ Sullivan said. „You could call MR a killer app for these high-bandwith, low-latency networks.“
The real killer app there is remote rendering. HoloLens 2 holograms look good, but they’re still a little pixelated, and the Vuforia CAD renderings were a bit schematic. That’s fine; they got the job done. But by streaming remotely rendered objects (ideally for Microsoft, through an Azure cloud service), they can get to essentially infinite resolution, limited only by the 2K screens you’re looking through. 5G would let you do that anywhere.
For now, though, HoloLens uses Wi-Fi 802.11ac, not even the new ax, based on the capabilities of its Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 PC chipset. That’s just about development time; Qualcomm has a newer chipset, the 8cx, but HoloLens 2 has been in development for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised if HoloLens 3 had 5G.
Will Consumers Ever Go Holo?
HoloLens costs $3,500, but that’s not crazy the way Huawei’s $2,600 folding phone is, because Microsoft has very carefully scoped this for businesses. PCMag is primarily a consumer publication, though, and you’re probably a consumer, so I asked Sullivan when HoloLens becomes a consumer product.
„I think it’s measured in years … not decades,“ Sullivan said. But there are a lot of things between HoloLens and broad consumer adoption: Microsoft’s unique optics engine, the cost of the materials, and—possibly most importantly—a design that makes sense in a work context and doesn’t look weird if you wore it on the street. Microsoft isn’t interested in creating „glassholes,“ the mocking moniker for people who wore Google Glass out in public.
„Over time, you achieve economies of scale that drive the cost of production down and enable you to deliver the same tech to consumers at a more affordable price point,“ Sullivan said.
HoloLens will be available later this year. Sullivan didn’t want to get more precise about when, but he promised that this won’t be a „by Christmas“ kind of launch. Microsoft will prioritize major business customers and software developers for its initial lot of units. I suspect there’s going to be a back-order situation.