MWC 2019: HoloLens 2 Is An AR Headset I’d Actually Use

I considered myself a HoloLens skeptic. Microsoft’s first-generation AR headset was promising on paper, but the thing bit into my nose, was finicky to use and, well, we all know about the field of view. HoloLens was not, in my opinion, a usable device (I haven’t used Magic Leap One, for clarity’s sake).

HoloLens 2 is.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still incremental steps over the original. But they’re important steps all the same – HoloLens is slightly lighter (13g) and better-designed than the original and it makes a world of difference. During my MWC 2019 demo I regularly stopped to chat with the team guiding me through. At times I completely forgot that I was even wearing a headset. That’s also down to the more comfortable design that rested easier on the bridge of my nose, of course.

My 10 minute demo consisted of the usual AR staples. I did a quick eye-tracking calibration (more on that in a bit) and then found several 3D models dotted around Microsoft’s idealized living room. I could pick them up and scale them to my liking, just as I could on HoloLens 1.

But it’s how I did it that was important. HoloLens 2’s handtracking was able to recognize a variety of grabbing gestures, from clenched fists to pinches. It didn’t matter how I wanted to grab the corner of an object. Anything that I felt would work in real life simply. . .worked.

This enabled a kind of intuition I hadn’t yet felt in AR. I was talking with my guide as I grabbed a miniature wind turbine, scaling it up and walking over to the center of the room with it, all without thinking about the actions. Aside from trying to do things outside of the hand-tracking sensor’s FOV (bigger than the display’s but still not without issue), there was no wrestling with the UI. It all felt completely natural, as if I was manipulating real-world objects. Imagine how effortlessly we grab and resize images with a mouse. HoloLens 2 made manipulating 3D objects feel just as easy.

I was less impressed with Microsoft’s messaging on ‘feeling’ holograms, though. If you watched last night’s presentation, you might have got the impression that there was some sort of haptic feedback that allows you to sense when you were touching holograms. In reality the tech’s finger tracking just picks up when you’re touching the edge of an asset. It’s helpful information for sure, but don’t expect to ‘feel’ anything when you put on HoloLens 2.

The next section of the demo had some cool eye-tracking implementation. I could look at different orbs and say ‘pop’ to get them to burst. More impressive was text-scrolling that worked like I was reading from an autocue. As your eyes reach the bottom of the page, text scrolls up. It’s not quite a seamless experience, especially for someone that reads text quite erratically, but it was a helpful addition.

I’ll be interested to see what other uses Microsoft and partners come up with for eye-tracking, though. In VR, this tech is being billed as a holy grail that enables foveated rendering. In AR, it isn’t as essential — at least not yet. Eye-tracking as input can be revelatory but it can also be sensitive and restless.

And, finally, there’s the most talked about upgrade, the FOV. It’s not a revelation, but it’s still a welcome step up. With the original HoloLens, you could put a miniature model of, say, a human on the desk in front of you and still struggle to fit it into view. With HoloLens 2, you’ll see the whole model when centered, though the FOV will quickly bite into the image if you move too much.

In the scientifically-accurate image below, the FOV’s corners fit into the corners between my thumb and finger.

It was enough of an improvement to make me gasp when I first put on the headset and looked at the four models around me, but snap back to reality as I started to mess with them.

Baby steps, then, but enough of them made in the right places. When I first tried the Oculus Rift DK1, I instantly ‘got it’ despite the shortcomings. I used DK1 enthusiastically, knowing it was humble beginnings. The original HoloLens didn’t give me the same sensation. As slight as some improvements may seem, HoloLens 2 was able to cross that barrier for me. If this AR’s DK1, I’m very much looking forward to what the future holds.

Oh and that flip feature? Magic.

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