Showcased at a press conference in Barcelona, Microsoft's HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset promises more features, better virtual and augmented displays, and a more comfortable experience when wearing the headset.
Yes, the HoloLens headset might look as if it has been built for playing video games – not a surprise, given the mixed reality project has its origins in Microsoft Kinect, the motion controller for Xbox 360. But Microsoft is determined to position it as an enterprise tool, to help boost productivity and collaboration with the aid of interactive holograms.
"Imagine transforming any room into an infinite workplace, when you can teleport your presence anywhere and visualize and collaborate on your ideas with anyone effortlessly," Alex Kipman, technical fellow for AI and mixed reality in the Cloud and AI Group at Microsoft and HoloLens 2 project lead, told the audience.
"You can transform personal computing into truly collaborative computing where devices become lenses into our connected world."
To help build HoloLens 2 into an enterprise collaboration tool, Microsoft is working with augmented reality company Spatial to provide remote users with the opportunity to use HoloLens 2 to meet as 3D avatars in a virtual meeting room where each user can interact with the AR environment using touch and voice commands.
"Today companies tackling the biggest problems are increasingly spread across the world and the HoloLens lets us work together as if we were standing next to each other, face to face," said Spatial co-founder and CEO Anand Agarawala, who was soon showcasing the technology by speaking with a colleague represented by a fully mobile 3D avatar.
The avatar is generated from a photo of the user and is designed to let those in a virtual room work as if they're face to face — albeit face to face via disembodied floating torsos.
In an effort to make a real case for HoloLens 2 as an enterprise tool rather than just an impressive gimmick, Microsoft's presentation involved contributions from two companies that are already using HoloLens 2 as part of a partner programme: toy manufacturer Mattel and construction and logistics firm Trimble. Both are large enterprises with multinational offices — the exact sort of organizations Microsoft is looking to appeal to with HoloLens 2.
For Mattel, using HoloLens 2 as a virtual, interactive meeting room is improving processes when it comes to developing and designing new toys.
"Our classic brands like Barbie and Hot Wheels have diverse teams of designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers that are spread all over the world. They can now come together in a Spatial project room, reducing the need to travel to get everyone on the same page," said Sven Gerjets, chief technology officer at Mattel.
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The demonstration revolved around the idea of developing a new toy — a fire truck. Designs, PowerPoint presentations and other documents were shown being pinned to a virtual wall, which anyone using the virtual room could view and interact with.
The mixed reality meeting room is also persistent, meaning that it's always there, so users can enter it at different times to do their own thing, leaving messages and notes behind for others who may have access. Messages can also be left behind on documents, online or by voice communication.
In this case, the 3D model of the fire truck toy was found to have a design fault after virtual manipulation using HoloLens, with one user leaving a note behind that it needs to be examined and fixed. For Mattel, this is important because it allows issues to be identified much sooner, allowing for faster development or better designed toys.
"By bringing people together from all over the world to collaborate in the same virtual room, we're overcoming a natural barrier to our collective success. That's people's desire for direct face-to-face action when building commitment and trust," said Gerjets.
"We're excited to see faster time to market and reduced travel, as well as other benefits that we're going to unleash as we collaborate on mixed reality."
Mattel's toys are small, mainly handheld products — the opposite to Trimble, which uses data and visualization to help with the construction of buildings, infrastructure, and other large projects. However, both are using HoloLens 2 and Roz Buick, vice president of Trimble Buildings, is using HoloLens 2 to help drive efficiencies.
"For many of our customers, mixed reality is no longer a futuristic technology, nor a gimmick to get more clients: it's real, working technology that's adding value in the field every day," she said.
Indeed, Trimble has been a HoloLens partner since the first incarnation of the device and has found the mixed reality environment to be highly useful. Trimble can use the HoloLens to visualize construction efforts before they're built and see how things like piping fit in with the rest of the project.
Buick detailed a situation where workers were installing a cooling system into a building and checked the design using HoloLens. Using the 3D designs and placing them onto the actual building, it was discovered that some of the pipes were going to collide with fixtures that already existed. Frustrating, yes, but at least this had been discovered before the physical system had been put in place, saving both time and money for the firm.
"They used the HoloLens technology to view the 3D models against the already-built physical structure when they suddenly discovered a collision between mechanical and plumbing systems," Buick said.
"The issue was only discovered by viewing the system in HoloLens in a real-world context on a one-to-one basis. Solving that problem before any physical construction started meant they averted a delay of more than a week," she added.
In both cases, the mix of HoloLens and the Spatial virtual meeting room allows organizations to save time and money on flying employees around the world — although the price point of the HoloLens means that it could be a large number of flights before the cost of buying and using the device is reached.
It is easy to see how HoloLens 2 could help bring benefits to the enterprise, especially when it comes to sectors like manufacturing, construction, even healthcare — where the user can follow step-by-step instructions while maintaining the use of both hands.
HoloLens 2 looks impressive, but it still feels as if it is something of a niche product. Yes, it has benefits and yes, this version is cheaper than the previous incarnation — but HoloLens 2 still feels a bit like a special project for selected Microsoft customers.
The event saw Microsoft describe how a technology has become useful and part of the fabric of business when it's seen as not there – HoloLens isn't near that point yet, because while potentially very useful, it's definitely not hidden.
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