The experience created by the HoloLens 2 is the closest thing to visible magic the tech industry has ever produced. I'm not sure whether to describe my experience with it earlier this week as "hands-on" or "hands-off" since I didn't touch anything that was real. But my hands certainly interacted with things that, but for their luminosity and lack of tactile presence, seemed to be in the real world.
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Microsoft has rethought many elements of the HoloLens experience. The headset feels lighter, but it is only slightly so. Rather, according to Microsoft, the greater level of comfort comes from achieving better balance between the front and rear of the headset. After a brief "follow-the-dots" exercise to calibrate eye-tracking, I could look around and see a number of demo objects in the room. The first of these was a model of a factory that I could pick up, rotate, expand or shrink, and move to another location. As my hand approached it, a bounding box surrounding the model provided the edges and corners to enable these actions. And, as my hand approached it, the model revealed a button panel for running a simulation or other action.
Much of this was possible to an extent with the first HoloLens. However, while that product was groundbreaking, the illusion of reality broke down quickly. The first headset's limited field of view enabled viewing only small holograms all at once, and even these quickly vanished at the turn of a head. For example, when I tried the Spatial virtual meeting offering a few months ago with the original HoloLens, I had to keep visually scanning the room to locate the holograms.
The expansion of the HoloLens 2's field of view, however, reduces these limitations. Holograms appear in what is the visual area equivalent of a large movie screen in front of one's eyes. They still disappear if they fall into the periphery of your vision, but it interferes much less with the suspension of disbelief. With the HoloLens 2, I was able to see holograms that were about the width of my body up close and fully in view. I could also interact with these holograms, getting much closer than I could with the original HoloLens. Microsoft explains that it was too conservative with the original HoloLens in terms of the proximity at which the image should cut out. You can't hold a HoloLens hologram right up against your face, but Microsoft says you generally wouldn't want to.
Another demo showed off the HoloLens 2's eye tracking and multimodal input. Within a group of five holographic gems, I was able to rotate each of them simply by focusing my gaze on them, and have them pop simply by saying "Pop!" Both of these features demonstrate how the device can facilitate accessing and manipulating information while leaving one's hands free.
Indeed, for all of the 3D wizardry that the HoloLens 2 can produce, many applications involve accessing information that was originally developed for a 2D screen, including plenty of text. At its launch event, Microsoft alluded to the necessity of keeping 8-point type readable. My demo included reading a brief passage of test that scrolled as my eyes gazed to the top or bottom of the window. While Microsoft said the text was closer to 11-point type, it was more than large enough to suggest that smaller text would still be legible.
As was true for my Spatial experience, almost all of what I did in the HoloLens 2 experience could have also been done in virtual reality. But the demo didn't require me to focus on, for example, troubleshooting an actual machine part -- something that would require me to interoperate with physical objects. Even without such a task at hand, it is simply less disorienting and more confidence-inspiring to experience digital objects when you can see them in the context of the real world. And while the HoloLens 2 is still a conspicuous presence on one's head, the new model has a flip-up goggles component in the vein of a welder's mask. A small and relatively low-tech touch, it allows for true eye contact when taking a break from mixed reality.
In contrast to Magic Leap, which is scrambling to assemble an ecosystem for consumer apps for its first-generation headset, Microsoft views HoloLens 2 as but a component in its intelligent cloud/intelligent edge strategy. The company demonstrated this at the product's launch as it showed how the same model could be viewed by both a HoloLens 2 and an iPad. In this instance, the iOS or Android device uses its native rendering capabilities (ARKit or ARCore), but Microsoft's Azure infrastructure can manage the anchor points and room mapping that Microsoft says has been a challenge for mixed reality developers. The incorporation of low-cost mobile platforms helps the HoloLens 2 story two ways -- first, by extending the mixed reality experience and leveraging the investment, but second by showcasing the clear superiority of the HoloLens experience.
Also: Microsoft HoloLens 2: This is big
What's next for mixed reality? There is still no haptic feedback when objects are touched. As I mentioned in my last column of the HoloLens 2, passing on this option removes the potential encumbrance of gloves and could pose a challenge for the hand recognition that HoloLens uses in order to determine when you touch a hologram. While it is clearly a necessity to continue to blur the lines between the digital and physical, though, there's no question that the HoloLens 2 enables the conveying of information with a depth and intuitiveness that make modern tablets seem as primitive as stone ones. Thinking back to one of Microsoft's earlier mantras, the company has gone well beyond delivering information at your fingertips. It has enabled them to manipulate digital objects in a way could transform how we perceive our world.
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