In the future, 3D digital objects will blend seamlessly with the physical and Microsoft has taken another step towards getting us there.
The company has made some significant upgrades to its HoloLens mixed reality headset including broadening the field of vision, enabling cloud connectivity and reducing the price.
It unveiled the second generation of the device featuring a new design and capabilities that early adopters had been demanding since it released the first iteration a few years ago.
The HoloLens is Microsoft’s answer to augmented reality — a technology many are tipping to be much bigger than virtual reality.
The headset has a visor that goes across your eyes and allows you to see and interact with holograms in the real world by superimposing the display over the physical environment and understanding where surfaces are to place them accordingly.
“We have been listening to your feedback and you have been asking for three things,” said Alex Kipman, head of Mixed Reality at Microsoft at a launch event this morning at the Mobile World Congress.
Basically, what people wanted was more immersion, more comfort, and a quicker timeline to having useful holographic applications for their work.
The new device’s field of view is more than double the size of the first-generation HoloLens. The narrow field of view on the original headset was a top concern among early adopters.
“The most important aspect of immersion is defined how much holographic detail there is,” Mr Kipman said of the effort to improve the quality of the immersive experience.
The HoloLens has 47 pixels per degree of sight, and Microsoft has been able to achieve that while “more than doubling” the field of view. According to Mr Kidman the upgrade is “the equivalent of moving from 720p to a 2K television for each of your eyes.”
There are also improvements in how users can interact with holograms. Rather than simply dealing with menus and hand gestures and basic tap gestures, they have improved the ability to manipulate virtual objects “letting you experience for the first time what it feels like to touch a hologram”, Mr Kidman said.
In addition to gestures, you can now better interact with holograms such as pressing buttons, pinching, grabbing and twirling the object and even do things like play a piano.
Combined with voice recognition (you can make commands like calling an object over to you) and eye gestures, Microsoft says the HoloLens 2 is built for “instinctual interactions”.
The HoloLens 2 has iris based authentication and signs you in as you put it on. It also recognises your hands and calibrates to their size.
Work has also been done to improve comfort including scanning the heads of thousands of people to use the data to improve the ergonomic design. It has also reduced the weight by making the front enclosure entirely out of carbon fibre and changed how the weight is distributed ”to make it feel like the device is floating on the head”, Mr Kidman said.
But perhaps the most important development is combining the headset with Microsoft’s cloud computing technology, Azure. This, Microsoft says, will enable the birth of “the internet of Holograms”.
In one demonstration on stage this morning, two users were sharing a virtual workspace and when they wanted to add a hologram object they could simply say the word coupled with a hand gesture and a few generic options would be produced in mid air. It was like Google Images but for holograms.
Cloud connectivity also allows for things like live streaming of data to be integrated into the hologram experience.
Rather than a consumer gadget, the HoloLens is geared towards the business sector with Microsoft keen to spruik the vast applications it has in industrial and workplace settings, as well as the classroom.
Highly specified procedures are one type of task this device is meant to improve, allowing programs to walk the user through the task and see the eventual outcome.
“Imagine a future when every contraction worker can look at what their project will look like in two weeks, or even two years,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told the audience.
“Or students in a classroom who can see historical objects as the teacher describes them.”
Those who took up the first HoloLens needed to build the corresponding programs to help them do their work but Microsoft is making it easier for users to derive instant value by launching a suite of holographic solutions ranging from healthcare to architecture to manufacturing.
“Immediate value for doctors, immediate value for architects, immediate value for mechanics,” Mr Kidman said.
The company is also launching Dynamic 365 Guides to help bridge the skills gap and make it easier for wide spread adoption by providing learning experiences for customers.
Despite stirring excitement among developers and tech savvy consumers, the first HoloLens failed to make a lasting splash. Sales weren’t great and it seemed like mixed reality technology wasn’t quite ready to be fully embraced.
However, there are plenty of examples of where the mixed reality goggles are reshaping old tasks. For instance, thanks to MIT university, bricklayers in Victoria are using the headset to visualise, manage and build projects.
There are really two reasons Microsoft hasn’t positioned it as a consumer device. Despite the exciting technology at play, it isn’t really designed for gaming or entertainment purposes. Secondly, the first HoloLens was far from cheap at $US5000 ($AU7000).
But Microsoft has significantly reduced the price to $US3500 ($AU4900) and also used part of this morning’s event to tout the potential of future gaming applications.
The sizeable price drop and other improvements made to the HoloLens pave the way for a more consumer friendly future and certainly give it the best chance of dominating the emerging augmented reality market in the coming years.
It’s certainly not a device for a Luddite, but it could very well be the future.
The author travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Microsoft.
Originally published as $5000 device will change your reality