HoloLens 2 and the beginning of a computing revolution

The HoloLens 2 announcement at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is part and parcel of the coming visual computing revolution. The first-generation product was impressive (for a first-generation product), but it had critical flaws. This second-generation HoloLens fixes most of them. At some point, even our PCs and smartphones may only exist virtually…and a descendant of HoloLens 2 has a good chance of eventually replacing much of the personal technology we now use.

Microsoft HoloLens 2

[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.]

I’m fascinated by the efforts surrounding the emergence of visual computing, particularly regarding mixed reality. This is because most companies got the path to market backwards, rushing toward the high-volume consumer market before the technology was ready. This resulted in an impressive amount of hardware that didn’t sell well because, well, it was mostly junk.

Microsoft rightly conceived of HoloLens as a commercial product, allowing it to create an offering with vastly fewer tradeoffs. And, by working with Lawrence Livermore labs to create the thing, they ended up with a first-generation product that was viable right out of the box.

Now we’re on the second generation, and it’s clear they’ve learned some things.

HoloLens 1

The first generation of the product had some strong positives but also some huge negatives. On the positive side it was well built, had an industrial design that looked like it came from Porsche’s shop and an interface that was easy to learn and operate. On the negative side there were a limited number of tools, it carried a lot of weight forward (putting stress on the back of your neck), you couldn’t easily get the displays out of the way and the field of view was annoyingly limited.

I would argue that despite the fact it was an industrial product, its design-first consumer-like form factor was way too Apple-like for its intended market. An Apple-like product was always in this product’s future, but out of the gate it detracted too much from the product’s function.

HoloLens 2

This newer version addresses a number of those problems very well. It isn’t as attractive as the first-generation product, having a more industrial form-over-function look. But, for an industrial product (which is what this now is), that isn’t a bad thing. It’s sturdier, higher performance…but uses carbon fiber extensively to keep the weight (which is also far better balanced) more in line with a user’s needs.

Field of view has been increased substantially (effectively doubled), while leaving the 2K resolution of each display intact. The visor now lifts and what was an extensive fitting effort with the first-generation device is now a one control quick-fit affair.

One interesting change is the use of the eye tracking cameras for biometric authentication. These headsets are expensive, so it makes sense that employees would share them. The ability to just pick one up, have it auto-authenticate and get the employee into the task may seem trivial, but it could save thousands of man-years across the ecosystem. Plus, on a manufacturing line, it enables fast swaps, which will help to keep the line running.

One of the substantial improvements is accurate hand tracking. The first generation HoloLens used a mouse metaphor to select things. Your eyes were the mouse and you used a pinching motion to select. It wasn’t that hard to learn but it was also anything but natural.

With HoloLens 2 your hands are used as – wait for it – HANDS. You can select and grab things more naturally. If you want to use the pinch motion, though, it looks like it’s still there as well, based on the demonstration on stage.

The device is now surrounded by a far richer ecosystem. It reminds me bit of the Windows 95 launch, because there are a ton of people in it and the Windows 95 launch was the beginning of Windows everyplace. This ecosystem is likely the most important part of the launch and it included development tools, cloud resources (mostly Azure) and a massive commitment towards “open.”

Demonstrations of the product were pretty impressive, ranging from the ability to access instructions, menu or video anyplace you wanted. And the option of having that screen move with you was pretty amazing. I have a car hobby and having to look at a computer screen and then the car is a pain in the butt, because I need the screen where I’m working, not in my office, on the car seat or someplace else out of site.

They showed the Spatial video conferencing app (I’m already a fan), which puts you in the room even if you’re remote and provides a much higher level of interaction between local and remote workers than I’ve ever seen before.

PTC/Vuforia and ThingWorks showcased how the headset could be used to combat pollution by enabling remote techs to do timely preventative maintenance.

Royal Phillips showcased telemedicine in use, which is a game-changer because a top specialist could conceivably be called in from anyplace in the world and step into the surgery, potentially preventing catastrophic medical outcomes.

HoloLens 3?

With the first HoloLens we only had one point in the eventual evolution of this product, which left us guessing what the new generation would look and act like. But with two products we can envision trends – including an increasing shift to function-over-form, increased performance and field of view without adversely impacting weight, as well as further advances in ergonomics and security, and a consumer-based gaming focused product.

This last is from a talk by Epic Games founder Tim Sweeny, who indicated they’d be taking their Unreal Engine to HoloLens. That suggests we’ll soon see a line of products with both consumer and commercial versions. The consumer version will likely be a cost-reduced, more design-forward product, and the new commercial product will be higher performance and retain the form-over-function trend of the prior two offerings.

The medical, collaborative and design aspects of the line remain important but, oh man, the games will be awesome. I do expect, particularly with the advent of 5G, that more and more processing power for this device will be shifted into the Microsoft Cloud, which should help reduce prices.

Yes, I do want one, but I’ll have to wait for the third generation of the product, because that’s the one that will be Epic. I think HoloLens is on a path to a new type of computing and I can hardly wait until we get there.

(Oh, and this wasn’t the only interesting thing Microsoft talked about. Check out this new Kinect full sensing camera.)

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