One of the first things you notice when you put on Microsoft's HoloLens 2, revealed to the world at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, is that it's lighter and less bulky than the first incarnation of the mixed-reality headset.
Putting on the original HoloLens felt a bit clunky — especially if, like me, you have to force it over the top of a pair of glasses.
However, Microsoft's new hardware is easier to slip on, especially for the spectacle wearer and the visor is more adjustable and even flips up so you can see more clearly when not in the virtual world.
The set up for my demo in Barcelona was simple enough and I was asked to not move my head while following the movements of a small, floating, crystal-like purple shape, so the HoloLens 2 could calibrate eye-movement tracking.
Soon the shapes were replaced with a hummingbird. When I stretched out my hand, the bird came and sat on my fingers, immediately illustrating the power of augmented reality; it almost felt like I was touching the bird and it was reacting to my movements.
Once set up, there's immediately one noticeable difference — the field of view for HoloLens 2 is double the size of the original. The area in which you can look and see items — objects or avatars of other users in the same virtual "room" — is much larger. It's easier to keep track of what's going on in the user interface around you with just your eyes, rather than needing to turn your head.
If Microsoft is going to be successful in its plans to push augmented reality as a useful and productive business tool, this is an important step forward, as the larger field of view helps with the illusion that what's in front of you is really there.
This was sometimes an issue with the original HoloLens, as larger virtual displays or objects could easily clip out of your view, forcing the user to move or even take a step back. This can still still be an issue when looking at larger objects, but the improvement to the field of view is a big step forward.
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One of the key areas Microsoft boasts that the mixed-reality experience offered by HoloLens 2 can provide a real bonus is in construction and engineering. One of the examples featured in Microsoft's materials is a construction worker using a HoloLens to help build something, with the headset providing instructions and information directly right in front of their eyes, while their hands are free to continue their work.
Using HoloLens 2, organisations in this sector could use the virtual display in multiple stages of the building process, from examining pull-apart 3D designs of everything ranging from individual pipes and valves to the entire building itself.
It's this particular function which was showcased during my hands-on demonstration of HoloLens 2, using a mixed-reality app from Bentley Systems, an American-based provider of architecture and engineering software to architects, engineers, and constructors.
The SYNCHRO XR HoloLens 2 software allows you to view and interact with architecture plans in real-time and gives you the ability to interact and manipulate the holographic objects. Suddenly, a table in the room became a stand for a hologram representing the outside surfaces of a planned building.
As part of a "shared experience" with another user, I was able to manipulate parts of the model, for example, reaching out to take a silo attached to the side of the building and pass it to another user who put it down on the other side of the building.
In this shared environment, multiple users can collaborate in real-time and it mostly felt intuitive, as if a real object was being passed between us. There was one slip up when I went to grab the item and missed, leading it to float out of my field of vision, but after a quick look around I was able to grab it and place it back.
But the Bentley HoloLens 2 software doesn't just allow you to manipulate virtual objects, it allows you to manipulate time — sort of. By opening a new tool, this time while using the device in a solo capacity, I was presented with a sliding bar against calendar dates.
By gesturing towards the slider and moving it up or down, I was able to move time forward and backwards for the hologram of the building, showing how the insides and outsides of it look at any point during the construction schedule.
It's easy to imagine how seeing a 3D model like this could help the process along, potentially avoiding incidents and delays in construction if physical clashes are discovered via the 3D designs, rather than when the site is being physically built.
There's also the potential for HoloLens 2 to be used when the site itself is being built. During the demonstration I was able to use the user interface to select different objects in the building, pull them out of the model, and take a closer look.
While the model appeared between my hands, I was able to make it larger and smaller again by using simple gestures, spreading my arms to zoom in, contracting them to return to the original size. Each of the parts also came with some hovering panels of text, detailing the dimensions and other information about the item.
You can imagine that being able to look at pieces and parts of all sizes like this can aid builders and architects perform their tasks — and Bentley say the technology is currently being used to help build a museum in The Netherlands.
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Using HoloLens 2 is impressive — the more comfortable headset and the wider field of vision both help it feel like a step up from the original.
There are other applications which potentially have more value to organisations. Spatial, for example, is a mixed-reality video conferencing platform which allows holograms of users to meet up in a virtual room and interact face to face (which is something I also tested, but on HoloLens 1). This platform could have a general-purpose use for organisations around the world.
But despite the impressive nature of HoloLens 2, it still feels as if Microsoft is pushing something of a niche product here. It's still hard to believe that the mixed-reality headset is going to become the next must have tool for the enterprise.
To me it doesn't feel as if we're near the point where any organisation will be willing to routinely drop the thousands of dollars needed to buy multiple devices and gain value from their use. Impressive yes, but not vital — at least not yet.
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