Microsoft announces HoloLens 2
Is Mixed Reality a mixed bag?
The first HoloLens was released in 2016 when VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift were creating a buzz and no-one was really sure what Mixed Reality was or what the HoloLens was for. Now the second iteration has been announced, are things any clearer?In a way, the answer is ‘yes’ but that doesn’t mean that the headset will soon be available for game playing consumers anytime soon.
What is clear is that the development team behind Microsoft’s HoloLens are not planning for you to be immersing yourself in a first-person shooter with their newly updated device, but they would be happy for you to learn how to fix an aeroplane engine or perform open heart surgery using it.
The slight but significant differences between Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality come into play here and the distinctions are worth noting. Whereas Virtual Reality is all about replacing reality with a completely simulated environment into which the observer is placed, Augmented and Mixed reality retain a connection with reality by overlaying CG elements onto a real visual plane.
An example of Augmented Reality that most people would be familiar with is the recent Pokemon Go game, where the real world had to be viewed through your smartphone screen so that the CG characters could be superimposed into your view. Take away the phone, and you take away the augmentation.
Now, rather than holding the screen, make the real world viewable through head mounted lenses and you have the HoloLens (or the Google Glass before that). Where the real difference between Augmented and Mixed Reality comes in is that in Mixed Reality, it is possible to interact with the CG overlay, be it pushing buttons or rearranging objects in your field of vision. Although this is possible in VR, the interaction here is between a virtual pair of hands and the objects, courtesy of the controllers you hold, and not your actual hands.
It’s this interactive factor that leads the HoloLens in a direction currently away from the consumer since it becomes a terrifically useful device for training, research and education. Somewhere down the line, you may well be able to diffuse a bomb in CoD 15 but at the moment it’s more useful to use the HoloLens to train someone how to deal with a dangerous or challenging scenario in a safe environment first.
The interaction between your real hands and the graphic overlay comes from improved eye and hand/finger tracking via a new ‘time-of-flight’ depth sensor (also used in the new Azure Kinect, available as a separate device). Hand tracking now recognizes 25 points of articulation per hand, and allows for pinching, pushing or grabbing virtual things. Unfortunately, there isn't any haptic feedback but a future iteration could see this implemented.
Crucially, eye tracking is not affected by wearing glasses and the headset can also use iris recognition to securely log users in via Windows Hello.
HoloLens 2 is non-tethered and independent of a PC. The hardware running the show is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 and the display has improved by the equivalent of moving from 720p to 2K resolution. This has created a wider field of vision, now 52°, which, though smaller than VR headsets is still an improvement on the first headset. The viewing area is over twice that of its predecessor but retains a similar density of 47 pixels per degree.
The camera offers 8-megapixel stills, with 1080p video at 30fps. There's a five-channel microphone array and sensors include an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. Connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.0, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and USB-C for charging. There are about 3 hours of full use before charging is required.
It's slightly less heavy than before (566 grams versus 579 grams), but feels lighter because it's rebalanced and made less bulky.
HoloLens 2 runs Windows 10 and relies on a new suite of Microsoft cloud apps which aims to eventually be able to render graphics and location more accurately.
Microsoft has been collaborating with businesses to customise and optimise the headset and Trimble, the owner of 3D modelling package SketchUp, has already modified the headset so that it can be worn like a hard hat on construction sites and other potentially dangerous locations.
The next step is for business, education and research institutions to take this tool, develop it and create opportunities for affordable Mixed Reality to trickle down to the consumer that is more than just chasing cute monsters around the streets or stripping down your MP40 in CoD.
HoloLens 2 will launch later this year for $3,500. The headset will be sold in the US, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, the UK, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, Microsoft confirmed.
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