Turning Heads in Barcelona – Microsoft Introduces the HoloLens 2
Roopinder Tara posted on February 25, 2019 |
What's in it? The $3500 HoloLens 2 is a graphic computer around your head and a projection screen in front of your face. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)
What's in it? The $3500 HoloLens 2 is a graphic computer around your head and a projection screen in front of your face. (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

Microsoft hijacked the Mobile World Congress for their big news: the HoloLens 2. The huge (over 100,000 attendees) show fills Barcelona. Fifty Euro hotel rooms are going for five hundred Euros. You can’t find a cab to save your life. For their big announcement, Microsoft seems to have flown in any tech journalist of consequence – and a few others, besides. Preceding the rollout, for which the MWC facilities were commandeered a day early, was a lavish reception with hors d’oeuvres and champagne. Security was tight, passports were checked and “global security” wristbands were issued. We were warned bomb sniffing dog may be checking us as we got off a fleet of Microsoft-branded buses. We knew something big was up. “What do you think they will announce?” I asked. The new HoloLens, said an analyst. And yes, Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] was here to announce it live. The news and images from the event had already been leaked.

Over 200 of the media could now relax, rather than rushing off to file the story. Microsoft seemed to relax, too. After warning of no photography except for “official” images, they let CNN do a live feed.

The first Microsoft representative to take the stage was none other than Satya Nadella himself. We think it was really him. It may have been a hologram. The soft-spoken, unpretentious Nadella is a far cry from predecessors Bill Gates and the super Type-A Steve Ballmer, who last made big news by paying $2 billion for the LA Clippers. Nadella’s bio, Hit Refresh, is all about empathy in a corporate culture. He might know a thing or two about empathy. Two of his children have special needs. His oldest son, Zain, is severely disabled and uses a wheelchair.

A HoloHistory

When Microsoft talks, media listens. It was known for months that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was going to the Mobile World Congress, but it was supposed to be a secret why.
When Microsoft talks, media listens. It was known for months that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was going to the Mobile World Congress, but it was supposed to be a secret why.

The HoloLens is Nadella’s thing. The augmented reality headset may be Microsoft’s first truly innovative product since its early days, its golden age under the young Bill Gates. Able to show an image on a visor (actually a wave guide) while the wearer can still gaze through it allows imagined objects (think Pokémon Go) and yet-to-be manufactured objects (CAD models of buildings and products) in a real-world setting.

In my reality, I look like this guy. Alex Kipman, inventor of the HoloLens wears the latest model at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona.
In my reality, I look like this guy. Alex Kipman, inventor of the HoloLens wears the latest model at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona.

Credit for inventing the HoloLens goes to Alex Kipman, who dons the 2nd generation headset on stage. Kipman recognized the Kinect’s ability to quickly map the 3D world in front of it and how it could be used for more than playing interactive games. Why not put it the Kinect on your head and use it to recognize hand signals and use the hand signals to interact with images that are being beamed to your eyes? The HoloLens 2 uses Kinect to recognize the whole hand. Being able to “see” fingers lets you grasp and manipulate objects in the virtual world.  Microsoft demonstrates with a skit with an actor who comes close to the Minority Report UI, batting away images, swiping others into view a la Tom Cruise. Great, because the old pinch signal (“air tap”) was really goofy and the only other signal recognized (“bloom”) was often used often enough in normal speech that it became annoying when interpreted as a command.

A Good Fit

The HoloLens 2 is shown on heads and on the big screen. Your first reaction is the same as when you saw your first Smart car: Where is the rest of it?

“We designed it for comfort,” says Nadella. The HoloLens is considerably smaller. So much so that when we see the first image of it on the screen, we expect the remaining parts to float into the picture and connect to it in a reverse explosion. That doesn’t happen. At 1.25 lbs (0.57 Kg), it did not get much lighter – despite the extensive use of carbon fiber. One early reviewer points out it feels lighter because of better weight distribution. The battery and the processor, two of the heaviest components, now sit on the back of the head. The previous design had most of the weight to the front. You can flip up the visor when you want to give someone – or something – your undivided attention, like a shortstop under a pop fly ball. It's well on the way to looking cool. And cool is the high Microsoft has been chasing for many years.

Performance

The new HoloLens is meant to stand on its technical merit. The resolution is now up to 2K per eye. At 47 pixels per degree, we’ve reached the limit of human visual acuity, says Microsoft. Also, we’ve doubled the field of view.

To help in generating photorealism, which entails calculating the color of millions of pixels in real time, Microsoft promise to use its Azure cloud service. This should be a big help. The amount of graphical processing required to produce high quality dynamically rendered scenes, those that follow you as quick as you turn your head, is what brings even high-performance desktop workstation to their knees.

Serious Business

The HoloLens 2 will be available later in 2019. That’s as specific as Microsoft got. It will be priced at $3500 – down from $5000 for the original design.

The price is a clear signal that Microsoft is trying to engage industry rather than consumers. Too bad that those who have enjoyed AR and VR the most had the least ability or willingness to pay for it.  This includes kids playing Pokémon and gamers playing Microsoft’s own Minecraft (acquired for $2.5 billion in 2014) in their parents’ house long after they should have moved out. Neither demographic has that kind of cash. That’s serious business.

Hard hat goes high tech. Trimble’s Roz Buick shows the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 which includes a hardhat.  (Picture courtesy of Microsoft)

Hard hat goes high tech. Trimble’s Roz Buick shows the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 which includes a hardhat. 

Both Trimble and PTC took turns on the Microsoft stage to discuss their serious application of the HoloLens. Trimble VP  Roz Buick, who is charge of products for design and construction of buildings and structures, showed a special version of the HoloLens 2, the XR10, that is integrated with a hardhat. She showed how the HoloLens can be used to detect a clash where part of an existing building was going to interfere with a proposed pipe structure. Clashes are a common headache with retrofits and can result in work stoppages, extra expenses and late fees so egregious that engineers take great pains to avoid them. For big multimillion-dollar projects, a HoloLens or two is much easier to justify.

One of the problems with the redesigned HoloLens was the battery/processor in the back made now made it impossible to put on a hardhat, says Aviad Almagor, Director of Trimble’s mixed reality program. The XR10 will sell for $4750. It includes Trimble Connect application, which must be licensed by the month. While the Trimble unit was designed to be used with workers in the construction site, Almagor sees an opportunity with other workers that must wear safety equipment, such as those that perform maintenance and repair – the same workers that PTC is targeting.

PTC

PTC's CEO Jim Heppelmann was next to provide another industrial use case for the HoloLens. Heppelmann has long expounded his company's leadership in AR compared to other CAD vendors and had acquired Vuforia for the express purpose to providing an AR platform and creating AR content. PTC has seized on using augmented reality for MRO (maintenance, repair and operations). We are shown how multiple technicians, geographically separated, unite virtually to make a field repair, using not just a HoloLens, but also iPads. They are guided in the repair by written instruction and graphics beamed to their devices while they can see the object they are to repair.

Eye Tracking

The HoloLens 2 adds eye tracking technology, a further degree of refinement to what you need to see. By sensing which way your eye is pointing rather than just the way you head is turned, which is all the original HoloLens could do, should make the new device a bit more natural. Coupled with a whole slew of new usable hand gestures and a higher resolution image, the HoloLens 2 should be considerably more appealing to industry. And it may even be able to get Microsoft their groove back.

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