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How Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is bringing augmented reality to your job

·Contributing Editor
Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is meant for use on the job, rather than by mainstream consumers. (image: Microsoft)
Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is meant for use on the job, rather than by mainstream consumers. (image: Microsoft)

BARCELONA—My introduction to the HoloLens 2 augmented-reality headset started with an iridescent hummingbird floating in my hand and ended with my performing some light mechanical repair.

That’s the kind of transition Microsoft (MSFT) is attempting with what it calls “mixed reality,” technology that overlays computer-generated objects onto the real world.

With HoloLens 2, introduced at the MWC Barcelona trade show here Sunday evening, the company wants to make mixed reality a workflow item in industries as varied as health care, transportation and construction. For you, the consumer, that means the things you already buy, use or occupy will become a little more reliable and efficient.

Hands-on, on-head report

The $3,500 HoloLens 2 (available for pre-order and shipping later this year) combines two transparent displays with twice the field of view of the original’s screens, an array of sensors that now track where your eyes move and a Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 850 chipset.

The virtual bird that fluttered above my outstretched hand after a quick setup session served as a sort of dessert before the main course: using the HoloLens 2 to summon remote coaching to get a malfunctioning drive belt in an equipment cabinet working again.

The support rep who appeared in a video window floating in front of me could see what I saw, thanks to the cameras on the front of the HoloLens 2, and could overlay his own advice—for instance, pointing out a button with a green arrow.

The HoloLens 2 has a larger viewing area than the original headset. (image: Rob Pegoraro)
The HoloLens 2 has a larger viewing area than the original headset. (image: Rob Pegoraro)

HoloLens objects aren’t just there to look at; the system can sense the position of your fingers, allowing you to push virtual buttons that respond with a satisfying click. A couple of times, however, I struggled with the depth for the window or chart floating in front of me.

In a few minutes, I’d identified and replaced the failing part (a fraying belt) without injury to myself, which is not something I can say for all my DIY home-maintenance adventures.

With its weight balanced atop my head, the HoloLens 2 felt comfortable to wear. Developers complained of the discomfort when wearing the earlier model.

“Improving the center of gravity is huge,” said Jordan Higgins, head of immersive experience, at Arlington, Va.-based ByteCubed Labs. “Being so front-heavy made it very difficult for people to wear for long periods of time.”

Use cases

During Sunday’s HoloLens 2 unveiling, Microsoft executives touted such customers as Alaska Airlines (ALK), the defense contractor General Dynamics (GD), toy vendor Mattel (MAT) and the construction-services firm Trimble (TRMB), which will sell a version of HoloLens 2 built into a hard hat.

Trimble vice president Roz Buick said at the event that using an early version of the headset helped the firm visualize an issue with the HVAC design of a building that could have taken a week to diagnose otherwise.

Microsoft is also working on HoloLens projects for the Department of Defense, which led some Microsoft employees to sign a letter urging the company to pull out of that contract. The tech giant declined that request.

In an interview Monday evening, Microsoft spokesman Greg Sullivan said the company opted to design and market this as “a commercial device" after seeing strong interest from businesses even when the first, developer-oriented model came with no warranty or support package.

"Almost immediately, enterprise customers said this thing pays for itself in very quick order," he said. "This was a device that could really solve some interesting problems for them."

Microsoft will also offer the HoloLens 2 for $125 a month in a bundle with its Dynamics 365 business-applications service over a two-year term, a total expense of $4,500.

But even though Sunday’s event highlighted the HoloLens’ origins in the Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 (which used a set of cameras to see your movements from across a living room), consumer applications seem off Microsoft’s road map for now.

That space in the market may get filled by Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Apple (AAPL) or smaller vendors like Magic Leap.

“I think we will be seeing two camps: Microsoft and a few startups like Meta2 and Vuzix on the business end, and Magic Leap and Apple (when Apple releases its rumored glasses) on the consumer end,” Dan Pacheco, a professor of journalism and chair in journalism innovation at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications explained via email. “In the middle is Google,”—which, he added, has invested in Magic Leap.

But ByteCubed’s Higgins noted that HoloLens’ support for spatial anchors—spots in the physical world that link to the mixed-reality virtual world—could open up creative possibilities closer to Microsoft’s professed ambitions to make mixed reality a mass-market medium.

If that consumer reality will happen, however, Microsoft suggests it will happen slowly.

"A new thing comes out, it's kind of expensive; then it starts to build critical mass,” Microsoft’s Sullivan said. "Our timeframe is measured in years, not months."

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.