With HoloLens 2 Microsoft Focuses on Mixed Reality's Time to Value

With the HoloLens 2 Microsoft is focusing on turning its mixed reality headset into a platform to create immediate value for design engineers and enterprises.
Hololens 2 focuses on improved immersion, comfort, and most importantly, time to value. (Image source: Microsoft)

Microsoft has unveiled HoloLens 2, the newest version of its HoloLens mixed reality headset. This time the company is looking to turn its headset into more of a design engineering platform than a peripheral or tool.

In a press conference to open Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Alex Kipman, Technical Fellow in AI and Mixed Reality at Microsoft, said the improvements made to HoloLens 2 were based on feedback from Microsoft's enterprise customers. “Our customers asked us to focus on three key areas to make HoloLens even better. They wanted HoloLens 2 to be even more immersive, more comfortable, and to accelerate the time to value,” he said.

You New Favorite Hat

The new HoloLens 2 runs on the second-generation of Microsoft's proprietary holographic processing unit (HPU), a processor optimized for running mixed reality apps and displaying holographic images. The HPU sits on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 platform, which combines a Qualcomm CPU and GPU. Qualcomm has particularly touted the Snapdragon 850 for its low power consumption and power management capabilities – an important factor when running the sort of graphically-intense mixed reality applications that Hololens handles.

Microsoft's Alex Kipman introduces HoloLens 2 at MWC 2019 in Barcelona. (Image source: Microsoft)

In terms of immersion, the HoloLens 2 has nearly doubled the field-of-view of the original HoloLens while still maintaining the pixel density (47 pixels per degree of sight) necessary for clarity and precise interactions. “It's like moving from a 720P TV to a 2K TV for each of your eyes,” Kipman told the MWC audience. “With HoloLens 2 we invented an industry-defining MEMS display...the smallest, most power-efficient 2K displays on the market.”

The HoloLens 2 also includes eye tracking, allowing the headset to sense where the wearer is looking to add an extra degree of control in addition to voice commands and hand gestures into a system Microsoft calls “instinctual interaction.” Hand tracking now calibrates itself to the wearer's hand size and manipulating holograms with hand gestures now has an ease and feel akin to manipulating windows on a 2D desktop screen. Users can move, rotate, and adjust the size of the holograms using simple motions such as grabbing and pulling on an object's corners. The goal of instinctual interaction, according to Microsoft, is to actually allow users to touch and more directly interact with holograms.

Kipamn added that the HoloLens' comfort has also been augmented. He said Microsoft 3D-scanned the heads of thousands of individuals across ages, genders, and ethnicities and used that data to create a more ergonomic, comfortable headset (even for those who wear glasses). The weight distribution has been adjusted and the overall weight has been reduced by making the front enclosure entirely out of carbon fiber. “Putting [HoloLens 2] on should be as simple as putting on your favorite hat,” Kipman said.

Open Mixed Reality

The paramount concern of many design engineers around HoloLens, and mixed reality applications in general, has always been return on investment. To that end Kipman said Microsoft has been very focused on time to value with the HoloLens 2. “Today it can take between three to six months before mixed reality creates value for an enterprise, because code needs to be written before you can unlock business value within an industry,” Kipman said.

For Microsoft, the solution to this is to make HoloLens 2 more of an open platform than its predecessor, allowing third-parties to develop on the hardware and providing software tools to let developers and engineers more easily cater the device to their needs. Kipman said HoloLens 2 will have ready-made solutions available from independent software vendors across manufacturing and engineering as well as the architecture, construction, healthcare, and education industries.

For it's own part Microsoft will be providing two new services via its Azure cloud computing platform to support HoloLens 2. Azure Spatial Anchors will enable developers to create mixed reality apps that map and track objects and points of interest in the real world.

The second service, Azure Remote Rendering, will leverage cloud computing to assist HoloLens 2 with rendering realistic graphics. “Today, to interact with high-quality 3D models on mobile devices and mixed reality headsets, you often need to decimate, or simplify, 3D models to run on target hardware,” Julia White, Corporate VP of Microsoft Azure, wrote in a blog post. “But in scenarios like design reviews and medical planning every detail matters and simplifying assets can result in a loss of important detail that is needed for key decisions. This service will render high-quality 3D content in the cloud and stream it to edge devices, all in real time, with every detail intact.”

In his MWC keynote Kipman said. “From automotive to manufacturing; from architecture to healthcare, our customers need high precision and detailed representations of their 3D content. This service will enable developers to use the power of Azure to directly stream high polygon content with no decimation to HoloLens – allowing HoloLens to display holograms with detail in excess of edge compute or rendering alone.”

Kipman said Microsoft is also committed to an “open app store model” that will allow developers to create their own app stores, rather than relying on a centralized hub as with the Apple App Store or Google Play. The company will also offer APIs and support standards such as OpenXR, a standard aiming to provide open and royalty-free cross platform support for VR, AR, and mixed reality applications, so “anyone can innovate with our headsets from the sensors that are being used to the differentiated experience being created.

HoloLens 2 will also be adding support for the Unreal Engine 4, a popular software graphics engine for creating video games across 2D as well as VR and AR platforms, opening up the possibility of creating gaming quality environments and objects for engineers.

A HoloLens for Every Occassion

Microsoft is also launching the HoloLens Customization Program that will enable third-party customers to customize the HoloLens 2 hardware to fit their specific needs. The first to take advantage of this program is Trimble, a software development firm that caters to Architecture, Engineering, Construction. and Operations (AECO) companies. Trimble has integrated HoloLens into an industry-standard hard hat (the Trimble XR10) for viewing 3D data in field applications. The hard hat also has an accompanying software suite that allows for real-time data visualization for in-field operations as well as training.

The Trimble XR10 combines the HoloLens into a hard hat form factor for industrial applications (Image souce: Trimble) 

Boston-based software firm PTC has also announced that its Vuforia software for creating augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality applications will now offer support for HoloLens 2's new voice, eye tracking, and hand gesture controls.

Datamesh, a China-based company focused on creating software for manufacturing and mixed reality applications has said it is developing software that combines machine learning algorithms with Azure Kinect DK to create software that can compare CAD models to physical parts in on the factory floor in real time and in high resolution. The machine learning model would be trained in Kinect and run on HoloLens 2 for maintenance, training, guidance, and remote support applications.

In his talk Kipman said the HoloLens 2 is only the latest stop in a long road that began back in 2010 with the relase of the Kinect for the Xbox 360 game console. The now-discontinued Kinect was a motion sensing camera device that allowed players to control games using full body movements and hand gestures. Kipman said the Kinect and the Hololens were born of the same philosophy: “How can technology adapt to people instead of people adapting to technology?”

But while the Kinect was a gaming peripheral, HoloLens 2 is being positioned as a system in its own right – one that Microsoft is ambitiously aiming to replace 2D screens and workflows entirely. If Hololens 2 succeeds where similar products have languished, or failed, perhaps design engineers will be the first to embrace a world where 3D holograms replace 2D images and text on our screens – what Kipman called, “The Internet of Holograms a world where holograms can be shared with others across different devices and form factors.”

HoloLens 2 is currently available for preorder and will be available later this year in the US, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia, and New Zealand at a price of $3,500.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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