At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft has announced a new edition of its HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headset.
The new version, dubbed HoloLens 2, addresses several limiations of the original HoloLens, but remains solidly targeted at enterprise-level, vertical-market applications.
Like the original HoloLens, HoloLens 2 is self-contained, packing full processing power into the headset itself. The new unit reportedly combines Microsoft's "2nd Generation Holographic Processing Unit (HPU)" with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 system-on-a-chip (SoC. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity are included, as is USB Type-C. Battery life is rated at 2-3 hours.
Microsoft states that its customers asked for improvements in "three key areas."
Immersion is a catch-all term Microsoft uses to refer, in part, to the field of view provided into the virtual AR world.
The original HoloLens provided a small window in the middle of the field of view, in which virtual objects would disconcertingly appear and disappear as users turned their heads. Microsoft states that it has now "more than doubled the field of view," which should be good news indeed. However, it remains to be seen (literally) just how the viewing window has been expanded. Microsoft does state that HoloLens 2 provides "47 pixels per degree of sight," or the equivalent of 2K display per eye with a 3:2 aspect ratio.
Microsoft also states that it has added a "new time-of-flight depth sensor" as well as "AI and semantic understanding" to enable "direct manipulation of holograms [sic] with same instinctual interactions you'd use with physical objects in the real world." It's not clear at this point exactly how these new ‘AI' techniques will alter the AR experience.
In addition, new eye-tracking sensors will improve interactivity, and (though this is not clear) potentially allow adaptive optimization of the display depending on where the user is looking. Eye-tracking will also allow log-in via Windows Hello iris recognition.
Comfort has been enhanced by improvements in center of gravity, the use of lightweight carbon-fiber material, and a new mechanism that allows donning the headset without readjusting the fit. Microsoft claims that the new headset will "comfortably adjust and fit almost anyone," including glasses wearers, using a "dial-in fit system." The visor flips up to ease non-AR tasks (which suggests that thought transparent, the visor does restrict normal view to some degree).
A new vapor chamber is said to improve cooling, always a concern when one is wearing a high-performance computer strapped directly onto one's cranium.
Time-to Value denotes Microsoft's initiatives to build-out the HoloLens applications ecosystem. This includes Microsoft's own Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, Dynamics 365 Layout, announced in October, and the new Dynamics 365 Guiles "mixed reality" applications. (‘Mixed reality' being Microsoft's marketing term for both its VR and AR products.)
Dynamics 365 Guides, in particular, allows creation of "step-by-step instructions that guide employees to the tools and parts they need and how to use them in real work situations."
Microsoft is pitching its Azure cloud platform as a way of supplying extra back-end capabilities, including advanced processing, storage, security and telemetry. Azure Spatial Anchors allow developers to "designate and recall precise points of interest, that are accessible across HoloLens, iOS and Android devices." Azure Remote Rendering is a service that "will render high-quality 3D content in the cloud" when higher detail is required than can be achieved by the built-in processing of an AR device.
The new HoloLens Customization Program will "enable customers and partners to customize HoloLens 2 to fit their environmental needs." The first example is the Trimble XR10, a device that integrates HoloLens 2 and a hard hat for use in hazardous worksites.
More consumer-oriented software is being encouraged as well. Microsoft announced that Mozilla is working on a prototype of the Firefox Reality browser for HoloLens 2. Epic Games is working on a version of the Unreal Engine 4, a 3D development toolset widely used for games and other immersive applications.
State of the Art
It's not clear how the HoloLens programming model is evolving. Microsoft originally stated that "all apps built for Microsoft HoloLens run on the Universal Windows Platform (UWP)." However, that software platform never came close to being ‘universal,' and has become even less so with the demise of Windows Phone, and reports that the Edge web browser and Office suite would be shifted from UWP to the traditional Win32 platform.
What is certain is that the biggest drawback of the original HoloLens remains firmly in place: the price. The HoloLens 2 will sell for US$3,500, and will thus remain positioned mainly for high-value enterprise applications where a solid return on investment can be demonstrated.