Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is still not a consumer device

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Technical Fellow Alex Kipman (best title ever for a fellow who has a tech-related job) mounted the stage to announce that after four years, Microsoft had a successor to the HoloLens. HoloLens 2 is here, and it’s less of a consumer device than ever. That’s not a bad thing.   

Next-gen improvements include a flip-up visor, lighter weight, more centered balance, and a new fit system that purports to make wearing the headset for long periods of time more comfortable. On the more technical front, the new version has double the field of view of the original, a new time-of-flight sensor, and new eye-tracking sensors. Microsoft says you can also now interact with holograms more naturally and instinctually, just like you would with physical objects in the real world. That capability is borne out of the fourth generation of Microsoft’s Kinect technology in tandem with AI tools, taking the fun gesture-recognition gameplay technology and making it truly useful. 

More interesting in terms of real-world usefulness, Microsoft has developed ways you can easily make guides for training using Dynamics 365. For example, if you want to show a new employee how to repair an engine, you can overlay directions on top of the physical device to show things as nuanced as which specific tool you need and how to use it. Creating the guide, though, is the cool part; just pick various instruction items from a palette and drag and drop it into the guide. Then you can hand a new worker a HoloLens 2, pull up the guide they need, and set them on the task. 

 

Although the HoloLens 2 works offline, it’s really designed as an intelligent edge device that leverages the Azure cloud. Using the new Azure Spatial Anchors, you can create “holograms that persist in a specific physical space.” The example Microsoft gave is that a clothing store manager could attach holographic images of outfits attached to mannequins that need to be dressed. “The next day, an employee could walk in, point an iPhone at each mannequin, see how it should be dressed and begin pulling clothes,” reads a Microsoft blog post.  

You can also make 3D digital models with the cloud-based Azure Remote Rendering service. The idea is that instead of crafting physical prototypes or architectural miniatures, you can create them digitally and share them holographically through HoloLens 2. Because they’re digital, you can send the models to anyone who has a headset anywhere in the world. 

The new hardware costs a cool $3,500, which is $500 more than the original HoloLens cost at launch. You’ll also need to cough up some subscription fees to use the aforementioned cloud tools. 

You’ll note that none of the above appeals to consumers. It’s not supposed to. More than anything, HoloLens 2 shows, with great clarity, that consumers are not in the Windows Mixed Reality equation. The original charming Skype and living room-fun mixed reality demos are long gone. How did we get here?

 

A tool, not a toy

Microsoft has been known to bungle big projects, like the horrific Windows RT not-OS and its inexplicable murder of Windows Phone (err, Windows Mobile). When it announced this wacky HoloLens thing at an event in January 2015, which I didn’t attend for reasons that are lost to time, I simply did not believe the early reports of its greatness. There was no way that Microsoft managed to create a device that solved (or at least ably addressed) all of the issues that had plagued the new and exciting world of XR. 

I’m actually kind of embarrassed by the article I wrote about it. The heart of my conclusion is this line: “Are we to believe that one Microsoft team has solved all the design, engineering, UI, input, processing, and content problems that an entire emerging industry is still struggling with?” Microsoft had, to an extent. At the very least, the HoloLens was a huge leap forward on all fronts. 

I still remember vividly when I first had the chance to demo Microsoft’s HoloLens. It was a little later that year, at Microsoft Build 2015. It was a whole secretive operation, staffed by dozens if not hundreds of young people in blue Microsoft shirts. We were invited to a location and directed up and down elevator floors, having our IPD measured here, forced to put our cameras and laptops into lockers there, whisked into demo rooms and just as quickly ushered back out, and before we knew it we happy few were all back on the sidewalk and headed back to the convention center.  

It was an astonishing set of demos. I mean, it was all there: holographic imagery that interacted with the real world, easy-to-use hand and voice controls, an untethered headset, tracking, etc. I sat down in the press room immediately afterwards and wrote it all down. I don’t know how long I worked, but after I hit the publish button and stood up to leave, the only people left in Moscone West were me and the cleaning crew. 

What I don’t think I fully realized at the time—along with many others—was that the HoloLens was not a consumer device. I’m not sure Microsoft did either, at least not fully. At the time, it was right there in the mix with exciting VR devices in the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but it was always something completely different. Whereas the game demos we kept seeing on Rifts and Vive elicited squeals of delight and gasps of awe (at least from me), the games I saw on HoloLens were boring at best. There were endless demos for industrial and educational applications, which in hindsight I realize I should have valued more, but one key demo made me understand what the HoloLens is and what’s is capable of.  

That happened at Microsoft Build 2016, a year after my first go with HoloLens. The “Destination: Mars” demo took place in a temporary big black box in the lower-level showfloor at Moscone West. Inside, a holographic Buzz Aldrin taught us about the red planet and threw it to a hologram of an actual scientist, who told us more, and then we got to watch a facsimile of the Curiosity Mars rover do something, and then we were invited to look at the barren surface and peak under virtual rocks. It was cool stuff and a really engaging experience, but it wasn’t until afterwards, that I realized what I’d just seen. I just had some follow up questions but ended up asking them of someone from JPL—an actual rocket scientist. He waved over another rocket scientist, and we talked for what seemed like an hour. 

These are the most important things I learned: Those rocks? They were not some artistic recreation of Mars rocks; we were looking at close-up, 3D photos of actual rocks that are actually on the planet’s surface. If there was a space bug crawling on the rock, the resolution was so good that we could have counted its thoraxes. “Do you think someday you could use this technology for mission-critical applications?” I asked. “We already do,” replied the rocket scientists. Every day, these guys show up to work, and while sipping their morning coffee, they review the images that Curiosity sent home overnight. The images are mapped onto accurate 3D frames and added to the treasure trove of intergalactic data that the rover captured the day before. And there I was, in a very terrestrial building, wearing a headset smaller than a motorcycle helmet, looking at the Mars the same way rocket scientists get to see it.  

I realized, finally, and clearly: HoloLens is a tool, not a toy. The launch of HoloLens 2 takes that to a logical end, rolling out complementary technologies and applications that leverage Microsoft’s strengths to create a package that the company believes is ready to deploy into the workplace. 

I still believe that AR has an enormous role to play in the consumer space. Give me a pair of spectacles that are about the same size and weight as the ones I’m currently wearing, and make them a super-peripheral for my phone that gives me a HUD, endless monitor space, BT keyboard and mouse support, a way to interact with my environment, and reliable comms, and you can have all the money you want. We just aren’t there yet. In the meantime, we have what looks like a mature suite of industrial, medical, and educational XR tools from Microsoft, four years after the HoloLens was originally unveiled. 

Obviously there are limitations, cost being chief among them. At $3,500 a pop, companies can’t just casually nab fleets of these things. It’s a huge investment, and the only way they’ll bite is if HoloLens 2 can reduce costs in the aggregate. ROI is king. Microsoft certainly appears to believe that’s what the new package can offer. 

 

Comments closed
    • sreams
    • 8 months ago

    “Technical Fellow Alex Kipman (best title ever for a fellow who has a tech-related job) mounted the stage…”

    Can’t wait to see what their kids look like.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 months ago

      LOLOLOLOLOL +3

    • liquidsquid
    • 8 months ago

    One thing that pops out at me is the ability to replace a wall of monitors at work for CAD operations, datasheets, etc. If a $3500 device is good enough to be used for 3D space CAD work, layouts, datasheets, etc then this price is fair. Productivity increases will pay for it.

    I would love to give one a spin.

    The best part is your co-workers cannot easily see you playing a game by walking up behind you any more. I cannot get away with that no with my jumbotron monitor.

      • fr8train
      • 8 months ago

      The monitor replacement aspect of XR is, if I’m being honest, one of the most parts about it for me. They need better FOV though, generally. The original HoloLens had pretty narrow FOV, to the point that it was kind of distracting. Double that? Solid.

      • TheRazorsEdge
      • 8 months ago

      I’ve demoed one, and it should be possible—with a catch.

      It’s a standalone device running its own OS. It’s portable, so native CAD support is out of the question.

      But could they use some software to glue it to a professional workstation running CAD? I’d certainly think so.

      The CAD software would need to feed the HoloLens some kind of AR primitives that it could render in the user’s environment. It didn’t have over-the-wire support for this when I played with it, but it was supposedly part of the vision for the future.

      The bottom line is that it depends on Microsoft implementing what they said they would, plus the CAD vendor implementing support for it as well.

      I believe Microsoft has done their part (my demo was years ago), so that leaves it up to the CAD vendor.

        • liquidsquid
        • 8 months ago

        Drat, though it would seem like an opportunity for UWB communications between a piece of hardware on a PC and this headset in those use cases. You would normally still be at a workstation, not walking around so UWB would work.

        You cannot rely on a CAD vendor to adopt a unique technology like this as the ROI wold be tiny. If they did, it would be prohibitively expensive.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 months ago

    “Technical Fellow”

    “Gentlemanly Scholar”
    “Dapper Programmer”
    “Splendid Technician”
    “Jolly-good Nerd”
    “Analytical Nobleman”

    edit: this was a super-interesting read, I just needed to get some synonyms out there.

      • EzioAs
      • 8 months ago

      “Brilliant Chum!”

    • Ninjitsu
    • 8 months ago

    Well they have military orders to fulfill so there’s that.

      • strikeleader
      • 8 months ago

      Not if the snowflake MS employees have anything to do with it.
      [url<]https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/02/23/microsoft-employees-speak-out-against-the-us-militarys-hololens-contract/[/url<]

        • Ninjitsu
        • 8 months ago

        Good.

        • Vaughn
        • 8 months ago

        lol you are late bro with an old article.

        Nadella basically told them to fuck off.

        He is not going to lose out on a 480 million dollar contract for employee’s that will never produce that much.

        I hope those employee’s are updating their resumes.

    • christos_thski
    • 8 months ago

    Microsoft is such a bizzarely mismanaged company. They come up with all these great ideas and projects, and leave them die unsupported despite having both the funds and the means to profitably support them.

    Take a look at windows hello biometrics, for example. It’s such a great implementation – it works fine and even tops Apple’s biometric identification when implemented correctly.

    So where the Microsoft IR face-recognition compliant cameras? Where are the usb fingerprint id dongles?

    You have to search for third tier chinese manufacturers for them. Microsoft can’t be bothered to support its own tech with hardware. It’s still hawking bog standard webcameras, 3-4 years after introducing face recognition.

    I’m afraid a similar fate awaits hololens.

      • sweatshopking
      • 8 months ago

      Almost all new decent mobile computers have windows hello cameras.

    • DoomGuy64
    • 8 months ago

    Consumer device or not, I’d buy one if that car app actually worked for any vehicle, although right now youtube pretty much fills that niche.

    • Wonders
    • 8 months ago

    Very cool article. Well done!

    • The Egg
    • 8 months ago

    Since this is a Microsoft product, it will start out extremely promising, only to be laughably mismanaged and then left to die on the vine.

      • Growler
      • 8 months ago

      And then someone else will come out with a successful implementation of it that takes over the market.

        • DoomGuy64
        • 8 months ago

        Probably google or samsung.

          • Liron
          • 8 months ago

          Just like they did when they showed that amazing surface table that nobody could buy and a few months later the iPad was announced.

      • shaq_mobile
      • 8 months ago

      why is this such a trend with microsoft? are they just bloated with fresh business majors or something? it does seem like theres a MASSIVE disconnect between microsoft and any sort of UX.

        • NovusBogus
        • 8 months ago

        Partly that, but also largely because MS consists of a whole lot of discrete business units who utterly hate each other. The Ballmer era turf wars are legendary. In that kind of environment it’s not important whether your product sucks or not, only whether your group is getting attention and/or denying it to your archrivals.

          • shaq_mobile
          • 8 months ago

          Fair. Just seems like a shame. It’s a waste. Feels like tech companies are experiencing what the music industry did in the 90s and oughts. Prices go up, product is static, they lose touch with consumers, then they blame external factors for failure. Execs scramble, job cuts hit, execs are shuffled, hundreds of millions of dollars in signing bonuses and severance are paid, then they contract jobs overseas, quality drops further, and then everyone wonders why they still buy HP products.

      • willmore
      • 8 months ago

      Naw, Hololens bucks the trend by starting off laughably mismanaged and unimpressive.

        • sweatshopking
        • 8 months ago

        Did you read the tr piece?

          • willmore
          • 8 months ago

          Yes, I did. Even more, I’ve used the HoloLens and know developers who’ve had the “pleasure” of working with it and with Microsoft. It’s crap and Microsoft’s support for developers is crap. Now, four years later, they’re taking another swing at it? Yeah, once bitten…

          Back then there weren’t a lot of good options in the VR/AR space. That’s just not the case now. It’s a more advanced enviornment and the competition hasn’t held still for four years. Microsoft is at the back of a large pack.

          And before you try to pull out that lame excuse, no these people don’t develop consumer applications. They develop for industrial and commercial customers in several industries. They’ve been doing so for a long time, they’re not new to this.

            • sweatshopking
            • 8 months ago

            I’d just say that your opinion is out of step with almost everyone else I’ve heard who has used it. Perhaps you can provide an example of another company doing a similar product who you feel is superior?

      • fr8train
      • 8 months ago

      “Start out”…it’s been out for 4 years. This is just gen 2.

    • psuedonymous
    • 8 months ago

    For the sake of future development: GOOD.

    We saw with the first Google Glass iteration that any potential will quickly be washed away by assholes, and moreso theoretical ones than actual ones (can anyone link to any [i<]actual[/i<] incident of a Google Glass being used to take video surreptitiously?). Hololens' lack of novelty in that regard and higher price barrier saved it in that regard, but as we saw with Google Glass very little - if any - non-enterprise development actually occurred using Hololens 1. The small amount that did occur was from existing AR developers using it as a more convenient packaging than the existing cobbled together systems (HMD + backtop + tracking) they had been before rather than any change in actual capabilities. Look back to VR of the 90s to see the trajectory AR development will follow. Consumer-targeted devices will flop (e.g. Magic Leap), enterprise systems will live on and continue quiet development in technology and UI paradigms for a decade or so before re-emerging. Don't get confused that "viable consumer VR is here, AR must be just around the corner!", as that is about as valid as "stereo movies are here, VR must be just around the corner!". The technologies look similar, but the capabilities and performance gap is massive between the two.

      • fr8train
      • 8 months ago

      Yeah, the consumer nut is a really tough one to crack. We’re seen it time and again…devices have to become indispensable to people (or at least deeply beloved), or they will, uh, get disposed of. Smart watches are like that…definitely still around, but they never lived up to the hype. Point being, I think it’s less about the actual tech and more about what you can do with it and how easy it is to use.

      Don’t even get me started on Magic Leap…if it turns out to *not* be a scam, I’ll eat my hat.

      I don’t think the next gen of consumer XR glasses will have the same problems as Google Glass in terms of acceptance. The whole glasshole thing was waaaaay overblown, and besides, as I wrote in some article about it years ago…if I wanted to surreptitiously record you, why would I do it by staring at you intently using a device that had enough storage for a couple minutes of video when I could do so with my phone, way more discreetly, with a better camera, and for a much longer period of time? Google Glass was just too early, it turns out. Too early for people to be comfortable with it. Too early for the underlying tech it needed. Too early for the UI and apps. So it goes.

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