Microsoft HoloLens 2 Pumps the Augmented Reality Brakes for Everyone

At the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last weekend, Microsoft unveiled its HoloLens 2 augmented reality (AR) headset. It’s still big and expensive, compared to the first version. It’s also not for you, if you’re a consumer who enjoys the latest toys, or a tech pro who wants to build games or consumer-centric AR apps.

Version 2 is just a bit smaller than the original. Microsoft increased its field of view, though, which is a huge upgrade. Instead of only seeing things right in front of you, as with version 1, augmented reality can occur in almost your full field of vision when looking forward. The display reaches 500 nits’ brightness, with a resolution up to 2K per eyeball. This is all done by blasting lasers into a display that sits in front of your eye; it’s like weaving a digital blanket of augmented reality stuff on a loom right in front of your face.

In-use, HoloLens 2 lets you act naturally. Pressing a virtual button (for example) is as simple as touching the empty space in front of you, as though there were actually something you can touch. In contrast to HoloLens 1, version 2 moves much of the hardware to the rear of your head for a more natural balance, and you can flip the visor up to jump between augmented and actual realities. It also has what amounts to a Kinect on the forehead band to help make sense of your physical space, and uses machine learning to understand the real objects around you, such as couches or windows (pun intended).

All told, HoloLens 2 is probably the best AR headset around. Zulfi Alam, General Manager for Optics Engineering at Microsoft, suggests that true competition with HoloLens 2’s fidelity is two or three years away. That’s a bold statement.

HoloLens 2, great as it is, is also meant for the enterprise space. Speaking with The Verge, Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s Technical Fellow for A.I. and Mixed Reality, said: “We’ve never positioned [HoloLens] as a consumer product… his is the best, highest watermark of what can be achieved in Mixed Reality, and I’m here to tell you it’s still not a consumer product.”

Microsoft has always called the HoloLens a “mixed reality” device, though it could never quite nail down what differentiated that term from “augmented reality.” At BUILD 2017, Microsoft tried to position mixed reality as the standard, with Kipman claiming it encompassed both augmented and virtual reality experiences. He encouraged us all to “forget virtual versus augmented reality,” then attempted to position “mixed” reality as both of those things combined.

And HoloLens 2, impressive as it is, is iterative at best. The cost isn’t prohibitive to developers who want to create AR experiences for big companies, but good luck finding a broader audience when the device is priced at $3,500. The professional sector is the target customer, although Microsoft is now saying the hardware is ready for mechanics and surgeons rather than designers and developers.

But the tech industry is already looking to the next stage of AR, when the hardware shrinks further and it becomes a mainstream consumer platform. These aren’t smart eyeglasses. We’re not asking how these will work with ARKit from Apple, or ARCore from Google. Nobody launches into an opinion about HoloLens with the question: “You know what these would be great for?”

It might take a few more years for AR to become cheap, powerful, and widespread. And that’s a problem. We’re not going to realize the dream of ‘everyday’ glasses as augmented reality headsets anytime soon. If Kinect-style motion sensors really are the best recognition software around, we’re in trouble. Augmented reality on the phone or tablet is fun, but it’s not going to be useful until we have a really good heads-up display for everyday use.

HoloLens 2 suggests that’s not going to happen for a good five years, at least. Technology moves fast, but heads-up displays for augmented reality are still moving far too slowly for consumers.

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