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Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 looks like a meaningful mixed-reality advance

Four years after announcing its first holographic headset, the company has one that gives you a better view of mixed reality’s digital layer–and feels comfier.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 looks like a meaningful mixed-reality advance
[Photo: courtesy of Microsoft]

Four years ago, when Microsoft unveiled its original HoloLens mixed-reality headset, I was simultaneously dazzled and disappointed. The basic premise–a Windows 10-powered, head-mounted computer that could blend the real world with computer-generated “holograms”–was remarkable. But the reality, in the several hands-on experiences I got, was considerably clunkier than you could tell from Microsoft’s splashy onstage demos.

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To its credit, Microsoft has plugged away at its HoloLens effort, finding a market among business users who have used the device for training, collaboration, and other purposes. And on Sunday, at Barcelona’s giant Mobile World Congress show, it unveiled HoloLens 2, the first update to its mixed-reality hardware.

Like his Microsoft hardware colleague Panos Panay, HoloLens creator Alex Kipman is a master at exuding enthusiasm for products he’s worked on. “HoloLens 1 is still the best fully and most complete self-contained holographic computer out there, and HoloLens 2 is going to blow it out of the water,” he said at a press preview Microsoft held last month. Judging from his presentation then–and a bit of time I got with a prototype–I’m impressed by the advances Microsoft has made.

A bigger window

The worst thing about the first Hololens–and something that you could only grasp by trying the device for yourself rather than taking in one of Microsoft’s onstage demos–was the limited field of view for the holograms you saw with the headset on. They appeared in a decidedly small rectangle in the middle of your view, pretty much guaranteeing that you’d never suspend your disbelief about what you were seeing for all that long.

With HoloLens 2, Microsoft has more than doubled the size of that rectangle. It still doesn’t flood your vision with edge-to-edge mixed reality. But it feels much more expansive, as I saw when I tried one of Microsoft’s demos, involving a 3D rendering of its in-progress construction project at its Redmond campus.

The original HoloLens interface involved a lot of poking at menus that popped up in front of your eyes–an interface that felt more Microsoftian than natural. Now the the company has added more direct gestures, letting you interact with holograms by nudging them, grabbing them, and otherwise handling them as you might if they were real.

Microsoft also reengineered HoloLens to make it more comfortable to put on and wear. The band remains adjustable, but the goal, Kipman said, is that “it should be as easy to put on your head as putting on a baseball cap.” The company reduced the device’s weight slightly, and–more importantly–improved the balance to make it feel less like you’ve plopped a computer on top of your skull. It also added a flip-up visor, letting you instantly reenter old-fashioned reality so that you can take a break or talk to a colleague with an unobstructed view.

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As a walking worst-case scenario for any headset–I have an XXXL-sized noggin and wear glasses—I did find the HoloLens 2 surprisingly comfy. But the real test will be extended use. “People aren’t wearing these devices to just put it on and see a demo,” Kipman said. “They’re wearing these for their livelihoods, sometimes wearing them on construction sites for many hours a day.”

HoloLens 2’s improvements necessitated an array of advances on Microsoft’s part, which Kipman went through proudly at Microsoft’s press event. “The lenses went from three plates to two plates,” he explained. “Now instead of doing red, green, and blue, we do red/green, green/blue. And the display engine, although we went from 720P to 2K, it got smaller.”

Microsoft also moved the headset from an Intel processor to a power-efficient Qualcomm chip based on Arm’s architecture, taking advantage of the new Arm-compatible version of Windows 10: “If you want to be on battery, you want to be on Arm–simple as that,” said Kipman. And it created new hooks between HoloLens and its Azure web services, allowing the headset to offload some of the heavy lifting of mixed reality to the cloud.

Over at Wired, Lauren Goode has a fine look at what else is new.

Industrial strength

When the first HoloLens arrived, it was in the form of a developer kit that cost an imposing $3,000. I wondered at the time if Microsoft’s goal was to follow up with a version of the hardware at a more consumer-friendly price. Maybe it was at one point. But HoloLens found its audience among industrial companies that didn’t blink at the price tag, and never got cheaper. (Companies such as HP and Acer have released consumer-level mixed-reality headsets, based on Microsoft technology, that work with Windows 10 PCs, but they don’t seem to gained much traction–at least not yet.)

With HoloLens 2–due to ship “this year”–Microsoft hasn’t lowered the price of admission. Instead, it’s raised it to $3,500. That $500 hike might help cover the costs of the more advanced hardware. But it would also seem to be an expression of confidence on the company’s part that the businesses that like HoloLens will like the second-generation version even more.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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