The latest offering in Microsoft’s mixed-reality initiative took center stage as the company formally unveiled the HoloLens 2 during the 2019 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. Touted as a way for businesses to more easily harness the high-tech visor’s capabilities, officials said the device will boast more powerful features while sporting a slimmer price tag.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Technical Fellow Alex Kipman and Microsoft Azure Corporate Vice President Julia White took the stage Sunday to address the new device’s place in today’s growing digital workplace. Speaking on the company’s “worldview for the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge,” White said the HoloLens 2 marked “an important milestone for Microsoft.”
Mixed-reality devices display 3D imagery over what a person naturally sees in their surroundings. Commonly referred to as “augmented reality,” headsets like the HoloLens 2 differ from conventional virtual reality (VR) headsets because of their ability to keep the user engaged with their surroundings.
Nadella told the MWC crowd that HoloLens 2 and mixed reality was “just the beginning of experiencing what’s possible when you connect the digital world to the physical world, to transform how we work, learn and play.”
The device can be preordered on the company’s HoloLens 2 page. The HoloLens 2 headset comes with a $3,500 price tag. There is also an optional $125 per month subscription to the Dynamics 365 Remote Assist service. It will initially be available in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand.
Becoming more business friendly
When Microsoft introduced the HoloLens, it was designed to help businesses work more effectively. In its promotional material, Microsoft envisions a world where engineers use the HoloLens 2 to overlay blueprints over worksites, surgeons consult a patient’s medical records in real time, and employees working miles apart can seamlessly collaborate with one another without sacrificing productivity.
It’s an almost science fiction-like vision of the workplace, but White said the HoloLens 2 and the Azure subscription services that support it are currently in use.
“This is because those Edge devices sit within the physical world while being enlightened by the cloud,” she said. “This means that a camera running at a construction site doesn’t just record video, but it actually understands the environment, people and things. It’s with this understanding that it unlocks new solutions that can improve safety on the job site or enable greater efficiency.”
Like its 2014 predecessor, the HoloLens 2 allows users to view 2D and 3D content without having to sit in front of a computer. Since the device is worn like a visor, it can be taken from workplace to workplace, allowing workers to view its interactive imagery wherever the work needs to be done.
To better facilitate the device’s ease of use, Microsoft announced that the latest iteration features real-time eye-tracking technology, see-through holographic lenses and a speedier Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 processor. Officials said the headset was also designed to be worn for hours at a time, with a more ergonomic headband and the capability to flip the device’s visor up from its user’s eyes.
“We are entering a new era of computing, one in which the digital world goes beyond two-dimensional screens and enters the three-dimensional world,” White said. “This new collaborative computing era will empower us all to achieve more, break boundaries, and work together with greater ease and immediacy in 3D.”
To White’s latter point about collaboration, Microsoft teamed up with augmented reality company Spatial to give users the ability to show up as 3D avatars, generated with a photo of the user, in a virtual meeting room during conference calls. This technology allows its users to interact with the augmented reality meeting room using touch and voice commands.
During Microsoft’s presentation Sunday, two companies and their use of HoloLens technology were showcased as real-world examples of its application. Representatives from toy manufacturer Mattel and construction firm Trimble shared how they regularly use Microsoft’s augmented reality tech.
“Our classic brands like Barbie and Hot Wheels have diverse teams of designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers that are spread all over the world,” said Sven Gerjets, chief technology officer at Mattel. “They can now come together in a Spatial project room, reducing the need to travel to get everyone on the same page.”
In their stage demonstration, a Mattel designer demonstrated how manipulating a 3D model of a toy truck allowed him to identify design flaws earlier in the production cycle.
For Trimble, the HoloLens allows its workers to see a project before it’s completed. Utilizing the device’s 3D modeling capabilities, workers found that planned plumbing schematics were incompatible with other fixtures. Since the discovery was made before any work had been done on site, the problem was addressed well before costly changes needed to be made.
Both instances, officials said, saved the respective companies time and money.
While major, multinational companies like Mattel and Trimble have been able to leverage the technology, it still may be a while before smaller businesses can afford to do so. Although Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 is $1,500 cheaper than its predecessor, it is still an expensive piece of hardware. By contrast, the Quest virtual reality headset Facebook released last fall costs $399.
Microsoft faces competition from other major players in the tech industry for the business market as VR and AR technology become more readily available. VR devices like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, while largely associated with video games, have already managed to make their way into the business world.