When Microsoft demoed the first HoloLens almost four years ago, it had Minecraft. For my demo of HoloLens 2, there were no games at all. That's because in its second coming, Microsoft's holographic headset is all about business.
By that I mean it's aimed at industries like healthcare and construction – places the technology is being put to best use right now. At least, that's what Microsoft believes. So that's why, when it's finally my time to try out the new HoloLens, I'm met with a choice of demos which includes collaborations with education company Pearson and Bentley Systems, a company that provides software solutions for engineers and architects.
But before I immerse myself into those augmented reality realms, I pick up the headset itself. Some big changes have been made too, that aim to improve not only how impressive that AR experience is, but also just make the experience a more comfortable one.
Read this: What is augmented reality and what's coming next?
It still has the futuristic visor up front and matte grey casing, but it's smaller, and that visor now pops up to make it slip over glasses and – we imagine – goggles. There's now a new adjustment dial at the back of the headset that's similar to what you'll find on Sony's PlayStation VR and other headsets, which makes it much easier to get a secure fit. The new HoloLens feels much lighter and while it's still by no means an elegant piece of tech to wear, it's definitely less cumbersome.
On the hardware front, Microsoft has sought to address some of the issues and criticisms levelled at the first version, all while adding features that make the experience an altogether more impressive one. The field of view has doubled, according to Microsoft, while the resolution has improved. But for me, it's the new eye tracking and improved gesture support that really make the HoloLens experience a better one second time round.
With the headset on I'm required to go through a pretty straightforward calibration process, following a moving object with my eyes without moving my head. Once that's done, it's all about making sure the gesture support is in working order as a bird appears before my eyes and I'm able to move it around the space in front of me. You see, HoloLens will now let you hold holograms, move them and even use two hands to expand and reduce their size.
In my demo with Bentley Systems I'm asked to my focus my attention on an physical blue table in the small demo room. From there a hologram of a circular building emerges, which I can walk around to inspect. Then I'm asked to pick up a construction crane simply by reaching out and grabbing it. Thankfully it works on the first attempt. I am also able to move the crane to another part of the structure, and even pass the crane to the other HoloLens-wearing person in my demo.
Next, I'm shown how HoloLens will let you grab and drag those holograms. So pulling a small lever scrolls through the different development phases of the building process that is being constructed. As I scroll up and down, the building in front of me goes from no floors to the finished article. After that I can see how you can put both hands to good use in Microsoft's holographic world to interact with objects; I can pinch and pull to expand a piece of the structure. The demo finishes with the ability to literally stick my head into the hologram of a building, peering through windows to get a little closer to how it's all been put together.
As I said, HoloLens 2 is not made for you and I. You'll need to stump up at least $3,500 to own one for starters. But as far as an augmented reality experience goes, there is a whole lot more to be impressed about here compared to the first HoloLens.
The addition of eye tracking and the ability to better interact with holograms enhances the experience in such a big way. Calibration was also simple, using it was easy, and overall it does a much better job of selling Microsoft's vision: its tech can be truly groundbreaking. It's just a shame that we will probably have to wait a few more years before we get a version of HoloLens that's more fun to play with.
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