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Getting Hands-On with the New HoloLens

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Microsoft’s new piece of kit doesn’t disappoint, but the real excitement of its MWC announcement goes well beyond the hardware.

After unveiling the device at MWC, Microsoft then went on to demo it to a select group of invited media (myself included) and that’s where I finally got the chance to play with what has to be one of the world’s most sophisticated toys, certainly for that price range.

Microsoft is in this for the long haul and will continue cashing in just fine without even touching the consumer market Click To Tweet

I won’t go over the basic specs here. After tons of excited reporting, the device itself – and Microsoft’s strategy for it – have been thoroughly analyzed from every angle. From in-depth technical reviews to accounts of testing the prototype in Redmond prior to the launch, all the way to the nay-sayers who still insist that the whole thing is doomed to fail, take your pick. What I’m interested in, however, is what this means for the broader immersive tech ecosystem.

The HoloLens and I go way back. Ever since I demoed the device in London for the first time back in 2016 I was convinced this was going to be something truly transformational. I went on to report on many different use cases that demonstrated just how much value the Mixed Reality proposition could bring to all sorts of industries.

The HoloLens and I go way back Click To Tweet

While others griped endlessly about the field of view and somewhat stilted gestural interface, I always preferred to focus on the bigger picture. The HoloLens was essentially an excellent proof of concept, and much of its technology was still amazingly ahead of its time even four years after launching. I had the opportunity to deep-dive into how the Microsoft team painstakingly developed the awesome spatial audio feature to heighten immersion, and interview its creator Alex Kipman on his vision for the future of both the device and the tech.

So after hearing all about it at the launch in Barcelona, I was keen to see it with my own eyes. Would it actually deliver on the promises Kipman had made on stage the night before?

While others griped endlessly about the HoloLens field of view and somewhat stilted gestural interface, I'd rather focus on the big picture Click To Tweet

When I first put the headset on, we were off to a good start: Promise number was kept right off the bat. This was vastly more comfortable (I’m not sure if it was exactly “three times more comfortable” like Kipman claimed but it was, well, comfortable!). Whereas I usually came away from HoloLens demos with big red marks on the bridge of my nose, the weight of this new device was elegantly distributed and the center of gravity much further towards the back. Combined with lighter carbon fiber construction, this is something I could happily wear for a while without thinking anything of it.

The second big promise Kipman had made was that this device was much more immersive. The fact the Field of View (FOV) is twice the size of the old HoloLens certainly helps towards that. Although I maintain that even with the original FOV your brain adjusted pretty quickly to it so that you still got an immersive experience, it was nice not to have to adjust. The FOV on the HoloLens 2 does not quite cover your entire line of sight, but it really does come close enough so that it doesn’t interfere with the experience. I spoke to Mark Christian, Global Director of Immersive Learning at Pearson – one of Microsoft’s HoloLens Partners – who told me that after delivering over 200 demos on the first day at MWC (conference attendees were waiting over 3 hours in line for the chance to try the device) not one of them mentioned feeling limited by the FOV.

So now that we got that out of the way, here’s what got me most excited about my own demos: The first couple of minutes in each one, where you’re essentially calibrating the device.

The second big promise Alex Kipman had made was that the HoloLens 2 was much more immersive Click To Tweet

By the third and fourth time I was doing that, I knew what to expect, but it was still magic, and to me it really sums up why this is an awesome leap forward for Microsoft and for Mixed Reality. It works very nicely across the board, but where it comes to eye tracking and voice recognition (and the combination of the two) it delivers in spades. And then some.

The first calibration exercise (after you do the familiar lining up of a holographic box onto the middle of your display so you can see all four edges) has a series of bright spinning jewels pop up in different places in your field of view. I’m instructed to just look at them, without moving my head. As my eyes rest briefly on each jewel, it disappears in turn. The HoloLens 2 knows exactly where I’m looking. After that’s done, a colorful hummingbird materializes in front of me. The device scans my hands (automatically adjusting to their shape and size) and when I move them the tiny bird flies over to hover above it. I change hands and move them around, feeling like Snow White in a Disney film as I make friends with this little guy, who I really feel like naming. By the time we finish calibrating the device, I regretfully watch him disappear.

But the idea behind having me play with this hummingbird is, of course, for the HoloLens to be able to scan your hands and their movement patterns to allow you to interact with the holograms. And that interaction happens in a much more intuitive flow now. Gone are the “pinch” and “bloom” gestures you had to learn and instead you can pretty much grab, stretch, toss and turn your holograms any way you please. You can push buttons, slide sliders, and tell stuff to do things. And because the device always knows where I’m looking, I can often do what I want just by directing my gaze somewhere. The prime use case of that is incredibly simple, and beautiful in its simplicity – reading. Text information was set next to a Hologram, and as my eyes finished reading the last line, that text automatically scrolled up. Not only that, but it did so faster or more slowly depending on my reading speed. It was absolutely seamless, and one example of what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella referred to in his speech on Sunday at MWC, that the best technology eventually becomes invisible.

The idea behind having me play with this holographic hummingbird was to have the HoLens 2 scan my hands Click To Tweet

And as for value, the price of the HoloLens 2 is actually incredibly cheap for most the large enterprises that have been using it so far. The cost and efficiency savings that introducing Mixed Reality have already brought to companies like Thyssenkrupp and Trimble are nothing short of remarkable, and the possibilities for increasing those returns even further are practically endless. That’s the low-hanging fruit as far as Microsoft is concerned. I have a feeling the only question those companies will be asking themselves is “how many of these will we be allowed to order, and how quickly can you deliver?”

But Microsoft also wants to create this “open ecosystem” around Mixed Reality and expand its appeal to small and medium-sized businesses. And for SMEs, the fact that the HoloLens 2 will also be offered on a lease basis for a few hundred dollars a month is a big attraction. The key, however, is going to be the out-of-the-box content that they will be able to offer those companies. And this is again where Microsoft’s strategy really comes together. For the past four years they have worked with these big corporations and their R&D departments to create valuable use cases, platforms and applications for Mixed Reality. If they’re now able to package that as part of a subscription offering for SMEs it could prompt a lot of smaller business owners to try it out.

Microsoft wants to create an open ecosystem around Mixed Reality Click To Tweet

So from a business perspective, there were very few surprises to come out of these announcements and the launch at MWC. Microsoft has proven itself to be steadfast and consistent in its strategy for the HoloLens and Mixed Reality, sticking to its original pivot towards enterprise.

But at the same time, there is no doubt that this technology will not be pigeonholed in such a way forever. It will evolve, become lighter, cheaper, and ever more intuitive and transparent. And when the time, price, and most importantly, the content ecosystem is right, it will reach that sweet spot where consumers will also embrace it. The HoloLens 2 brings us a big step closer to that, but there’s no rush as far as Microsoft is concerned. They’re in it for the long haul, and in the meantime I have a feeling they will start cashing in just fine without even touching the consumer market, thank you very much.

This article was originally published on VRScout

 


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Alice Bonasio is a VR and Digital Transformation Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. You can follow @alicebonasio on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or subscribe to her Inside VR/AR Newletter for all the latest curated immersive news.