Using the force
The original HoloLens was a first generation product in every sense of the word. While it provided a glimpse of what could be one day possible with mixed reality, the tiny field of view (FOV), or how much hologram you can see at any time, limited its use.
HoloLens 2 more than doubles the field of view to 52 degrees which, while still not as wide as most VR headsets, makes a dramatic improvement to the overall experience. Having a larger window in which to view virtual objects in the environment means they are less likely to get cut off mid-gaze.
One of the demos I tried had me play the role of a medical student learning to diagnose a patient’s ailments. I could walk around and examine the arm she was clutching while viewing her medical history on a virtual information window next to her. The FOV is still not wide enough to encompass your peripheral vision, and inspecting a hologram up close where it fills up your entire field of view means there will still be some cut off.
The resolution has been increased to 2K per eye, versus the original HoloLens 720p per eye. It makes reading text a breeze and, with the new eye tracking built into HoloLens 2, I could easily scroll text by just looking in that direction.
One demo had me explode virtual crystals by just looking at them without moving my head, and commanding them to burst with my voice. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling like a Jedi. Microsoft uses the eyes for biometric security as well, so users can instantly log in to HoloLens with their own personal headset preferences and apps in a pinch.
Getting your hands dirty
Unlike VR headsets, HoloLens 2 doesn’t use physical controllers and instead relies on hand tracking and voice controls to interact with holograms. The limited hand tracking of the original HoloLens meant that you had to rely on obscure gestures to get things done. With HoloLens 2, hand tracking has been greatly improved to the point where you can pick things up and manipulate virtual objects much more naturally.
In one of the demos, I was able to pickup a holographic engine off the table by just reaching out my hand and picking it up and setting it in the air. I was then able to increase its size by grabbing it on either side and pulling. The whole experience was very responsive and I didn’t experience any latency.
However we did run into some problems initially. The silver zippers on the sleeve of my jacket prevented HoloLens from tracking my hands. Once I took my jacket off it worked fine, showing that Microsoft is still working through some bugs before the system releases at some point later this year.
Another demo had me stick out my palm to provide a surface for a fluttering hummingbird to land on. The hummingbird followed my palm as I moved it in different directions. It’s worth noting that all of the virtual objects in HoloLens have an invisible bounding box surrounding it so in the case of the hummingbird hologram, it wouldn’t sit flush on my palm but a few centimetres above it.
I felt HoloLens’ lack of haptic feedback in this demo. While I could see the hummingbird had landed on my hand, I couldn’t feel its presence in any tactile way. It’s something that Microsoft says it has on its product roadmap but it won’t be in HoloLens 2.
In terms of ergonomics, HoloLens 2 is smaller and lighter than the original and overall felt much more comfortable to wear. You slip it on like a baseball cap and the new visor design means you can easily flip it up and down if you need to engage in a conversation with someone. Those who wear glasses will find it easy to slip the headset on over prescription lenses and the eye-tracking will still work as well.
Like its predecessor, HoloLens 2 is an entirely self-contained unit but it’s more powerful this time around with a Snapdragon 850 mobile processor powering the experience along with Microsoft’s own AI engine. HoloLens also has the option of offloading the processing power to remote Azure servers for more realistic holograms and deeper computational processing.
HoloLens 2 is not for consumers
When Microsoft first introduced HoloLens four years ago, it felt as though it was testing the waters to see where it would go. With HoloLens 2, it’s as though Microsoft has figured out the direction it wants to go and that’s squarely the enterprise market; a device designed for companies to help their employees get things done.
More specifically, it’s for people who work with their hands but still need access to a computer. For firstline workers from construction and manufacturing through to the medical industry, HoloLens 2 clearly offers some utility.
Microsoft is trying to make it easy as possible for companies to develop applications tailored to their organisation. It announced a new customisation program for HoloLens 2, so that companies can tailor the hardware to their requirements. For example, construction hardware company Trimble worked with Microsoft to make a custom hard hat with a swivelling HoloLens 2 built-in so construction workers can get a heads-up display on site. And companies are clearly responding to the ‘open platform’ messaging that Microsoft is putting behind HoloLens 2 with a diverse array of companies already onboard.
Of course, Microsoft hasn’t lost site of the consumer market entirely with HoloLens. It had Tim Sweeney — CEO of Fortnite maker Epic Games — onstage gushing about the potential of HoloLens and what it could do for gaming as a medium in the future and announced that Unreal Engine 4 support was coming.
While HoloLens 2 might be for businesses, HoloLens 3 could potentially be for everyone.
Krishan is a multi-award-winning Australian technology journalist.