Just one afternoon with the mixed reality headset and I’m already in love.
It’s finally here! Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 has officially begun shipping to pre-order customers at the cost of $3,500. So, what exactly can users expect from this anticipated follow-up to the original 2016 device?
Everything about the MR device has been greatly improved in its second iteration. First off, it’s noticeably more comfortable. Hand gesturing feels far more natural compared to the original HoloLens. The addition of eye-tracking injects a new layer of interactivity to the user experience. The flip-up visor makes getting in and out of experiences much more convenient. Voice commands, navigation, interactivity with 3D objects, virtual collaboration; almost every aspect of the HoloLens experience has been fine-tuned and upgraded.
It’s not perfect, but Microsoft’s next-gen MR headset has set a new standard for MR headsets. At $3,500 (which gives you just the MR headset), this is not a consumer-focused device. However, the HoloLens 2 and all of its improvements is a dream tool for industry professionals.
For larger companies looking to connect their entire team with HoloLens 2 headsets, Microsoft is offering a package that includes Dynamic 365 Remote Assist on each MR headset at the cost of $125 per user – per month. This hands-free video communication system allows technicians to connect remotely with experts operating on PCs or mobile devices in real-time for on-the-spot support.
While an excellent tool for major companies, the HoloLens 2 can prove just as useful for solo operators. If you’re a developer working on your own, Microsoft offers the HoloLens 2 Development Edition. This option gives you a headset plus $500 credit for Microsoft Azure, a three-month free trial of Unity Pro, and the PiXYZ plugin — giving you all the necessary tools to test, create, and launch enterprise apps for the HoloLens 2.
During a Microsoft HoloLens 2 launch event in lower Manhattan, I was able to go hands-on with the newly redesigned device and was even able to see how companies such as Spatial and Hevolus are already using the MR device in the world of retail, as well as a tool for collaboration.
One thing to mention for the sake of clarity: Microsoft views any type of immersive tech as MR. As it was told to us during their launch event, MR is considered a two-sided coin with AR on one side and VR on the other. As they explained to me, it’s physical reality | augmented reality > mixed reality < virtual reality.
One of the most common complaints made by owners of the original HoloLens was the uncomfortable design of the headset. Everything was built into the front of the headset, putting all the weight over the front brow of the user’s forehead. To counter that off-centered weight, Microsoft employed a halo-within-a-halo design that didn’t offer much in the way of additional support. The headset felt tight and awkward, which made it difficult to wear for long periods of time.
The new design literally splits the weight in half by moving the computer to the back of the halo, while the cameras, sensors, and displays all remain in the front. The HoloLens 2 itself actually weighs a few grams less than the first HoloLens, but it’s that weight distribution that makes the biggest difference. The dual halo-within-a-halo design is gone, leaving a single halo design that adds improved support, much like wearing a hardhat. It was well balanced on my head as I moved around and interacted with different 3D objects; owners of the first HoloLens should notice a difference right away.
The flip-up visor is a huge improvement in terms of easily jumping in and out of MR. While talking with someone from Microsoft during my demo, I flipped up the visor and we talked for several minutes before I realized I was still wearing the headset; jumping back into the MR experience was as simple as flipping the visor back down.
Hand gestures, in my opinion, received the most attention in terms of improvements. Everything feels much more natural. If you see a 3D object and want to grab it, you simply walk up to it and grab it. No need to tap on the item first and use a pinching gesture, a common technique used for the original headset. The same applies to any type of virtual buttons and switches; just do what comes naturally.
“The design team looked at all the different ways people would grab items or push buttons,” said Mark Sullivan, Sr. Technical Advisor at Microsoft, while speaking to VRScout. “We understood that everyone did things differently,” Sullivan continues, “some people would just use their entire hand to grab something, others would use an approach where they used their thumbs and the top of their pointer finger to grab something (like holding a piece of paper), while others would use their thumbs and the tip of their pointer finger. Everyone is different and we wanted to make sure those differences were represented in the HoloLens 2.”
There is also a way to just point your finger to grab and move items. As you extend your pointer finger, you’ll see a long line extend and attach itself to a 3D object. Once that happens you can pull your finger back towards you and the object will automatically fly towards you. Use both fingers and you can then spin, rotate, shrink, or enlarge the object. You can even combine gestures, like using your fingers to bring an object closer and then reaching out with your hand to grab it.
But don’t worry if you’ve mastered the hand gestures from the original HoloLens, you won’t have to relearn anything, because those gestures still exist in the HoloLens 2.
Microsoft also made sure that the built-in sensors could read the top and the bottom of your hand. During a hummingbird demo in which a digital hummingbird fluttered throughout the room, I opened my hand to expose my palm and the hummingbird flew into my hand and hovered there. If I moved my hand left, right, up or down, the bird would adjust and stay near my palm. The moment I turned my hand over or closed my fist, the little blue bird would flutter away and move around the room; similar to the Undersea MR experience offered by the Magic Leap One Creator Edition, in which a 3D fish cuddles in the hand of the user.
Instead of using the conventional bloom hand gesture to open up a menu, Microsoft is offering a new UI system that’s activated by turning your hand over and tapping a Microsoft logo on your wrist. If both your hands are busy, you can also activate the menu system by turning your hand over and pinching your pointer finger with your thumb.
While this may seem like a fairly simplistic update, this new menu system could give birth to a new form of in-MR navigation. Developers, for example, could use your entire forearm or both sides of your arm to place menus, interaction buttons, and other options.
Because the HoloLens 2 is a headset device, there is no haptic feedback other than the physical haptic of your fingers making real contact with each other. However, the headset does offer an “audio AR” experience by giving you a slight audio cue in the left or right speaker when you are touching a digital object.
When talking with Sullivan, he informed me that the HoloLens 2 does have the capability of giving users a digital haptic experience through third-party devices such as BeBops Sensors Forte Data Glove.
EYE-TRACKING AND VOICE COMMAND
Eye-tracking technology was an important feature for Microsoft as they wanted to ensure the headset offered users a fluid hands-free experience. One thing Microsoft engineers noticed with the first HoloLens, was that when it came to reading long threads of text, users had to stop what they were doing to perform an “air tap” in order to scroll down or up. Users could say a command such as “scroll down” or “scroll up,” but the problem was that many HoloLens users were in loud environments where the headset couldn’t hear the commands properly.
To rectify this issue, Microsoft built the eye-tracking sensors right into the nosepiece of the visor. This gives the device a clear digital path to your pupils where it can track your eye movements without disruption. During my demo I was given a long thread of text to read; as I neared the bottom, the text would automatically scroll down for me, continuing the thread without interruption. If I wanted to go back and reference something I had read earlier, I would simply look at the top of the text and it would scroll back up.
Microsoft’s Charlie Han, said, “We didn’t want users stopping what they were doing to perform a hand gesture just to scroll text information,” adding, “ eye-tracking solves that problem and makes it easier for someone to work.”
Of course, Microsoft didn’t get rid of voice command with the HoloLens 2. You can still say simple phrases such as “go back home,” “close,” or any voice command within the HoloLens 2 OS.
FIELD OF VIEW
The HoloLens 2 boasts a much improved and much needed field of view. Your space for digital objects goes from 34 degrees to 54 degrees diagonally. 3D objects appear much crisper. Having all of that room to place objects and move around is a giant step for the HoloLens 2.
Outside of comfort, the first-gen HoloLens other biggest complaint was the FOV.
However, that’s not the case with the HoloLens 2. The potential of the larger FOV really stood out during a demo of Spatial’s collaborative AR software. I was able to join a collaborative virtual environment with Jacob Lowenstein, VP of Business Development and Strategy for Spatial, along with Bri Scully, Business Development for Spatial — who was in a different location and was joining us with her Spatial avatar. The three of us were able to share digital assets, work together by pulling up information that we could pass to each other by hand, and even manipulate 3D objects. It was a really impressive experience that effectively showcased the headsets collaborative abilities. It felt like I was in a futuristic movie, such as Minority Report, or using futuristic armor like Iron Man.
Another advantage of a larger FOV is you no longer have that annoying problem of having to do hand gestures at eye level, like in the first HoloLens. You can do gestures anywhere as long as your hands are in front of the HoloLens 2. It’s very natural and very comfortable.
During my demo with Hevolus, Antonia Squeo, Chief Innovation Officer for the disruptive technology, explained to me that the Italian luxury sofa company, Natuzzi, was taking advantage of the HoloLens 2 and the wider FOV. “We are able to build custom and detailed pieces for our customers in a way where they can actually see the pieces in 1/1 scale. The larger FOV also means we can work in a smaller physical space, which means we can be in more locations.” Squeo tells me that the company has seen an increase in sales because of the HoloLens.
The HoloLens 2 takes a magical leap in the right direction for Microsoft, as well as MR, AR, and VR technology in general. More importantly, the device could have an immense impact on how we work, collaborate, and communicate. Based on my time with the headset, it’s clear that Microsoft based a majority of these significant improvements on user feedback from the original HoloLens.
It’s an incredibly intuitive piece of hardware that I could definitely see myself wearing for long periods of time if my job required it. I liked that Microsoft really focused interactivity and removed the need for formal hand gesture interactions. You no longer need to be precise with your finger pinch or hold your arm at eye level to interact with 3D assets. You can just do what comes natural to you.
No doubt the HoloLens 2 has raised the bar for mixed reality technology.
Feature Image Credit: Microsoft