Microsoft Announces the Next HoloLens

Posted on February 24, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 63 Comments

Four years ago, Microsoft surprised us with HoloLens, its standalone augmented reality headset. At the time, HoloLens was yet another target for Universal Windows Apps (UWPs), albeit it an admittedly unique one. But despite the slow uptake failure of Microsoft’s modern apps platform, and the failure of some of the device types that supported it, HoloLens has endured, and it’s found great success in certain vertical markets. Those successes, no doubt, influenced the direction that Microsoft took for this new version of the device, called HoloLens 2.

And to be clear, HoloLens is a success, with hundreds of thousands of users across many industries.

Many believe that I’m no fan of HoloLens because I’ve criticized its narrow field of view, which I’ve likened to a mail slot. That’s not fair, actually, or accurate: Yes, the field of view is an issue. But the central point of HoloLens—its ability to fool your eyes and mind into rooting virtual objects that Microsoft calls holograms into your perception of the real world—is so successful that it can be described as magic. That’s job one, and I’ve always thought that improving the field of view was just a technical challenge that Microsoft would assuredly fix in subsequent revisions.

And here we are.

Well, sort of. You may have heard that Microsoft originally planned to ship a second-generation HoloLens headset two years ago, and that the software giant canceled that revision because it was too small an update. The version we’re seeing today for the first time is thus technically the third version, but however you choose to describe its lineage, it is indeed a worthy successor to the original, and it comes with key improvements to address some current challenges.

HoloLens 2 correctly adopts the ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon platform, which, unlike with PCs, comes with absolutely no downside at all. HoloLens only runs UWP apps anyway, and those apps can be made to work on ARM somewhat effortlessly. This lets the new HoloLens take advantage of the Snapdragon’s core strengths vs. Intel hardware—like battery longevity—without compromise. Windows 10 on ARM may or may not eventually make sense on PCs. But it absolutely makes sense on HoloLens.

There are some form factor changes, which were leaked ahead of Microsoft’s announcement, resulting in a smaller, lighter, and more comfortable design. This new design is much lighter, much more comfortable, and has much better weight distribution.

But there are bigger, more substantive changes too.

Key among them is a feature I actually first revealed a few weeks back, that HoloLens supports what I called “hand tracking.” It works in tandem with another new feature, eye tracking, making it easier and more natural for users to interact with virtual objects without needing to use complicated controllers. Instead, they can simply use their hands, more naturally. They can “feel” holograms and interact with them directly.

Also key is that field of view issue. And sure enough, Microsoft has doubled the field of view in HoloLens 2 while retaining the resolution and quality of the original device. It’s basically two 2K displays, and represents a “generational leap” over the original, Microsoft says.

HoloLens 2 is also customizable via the HoloLens Customization Program so that companies can create special versions of the product that meet their unique needs. As an example, a construction company designed a version of HoloLens 2 with a built-in hardhat so that it can be used on-site during construction projects.

Finally, HoloLens 2 is significantly less expensive than its predecessor, though it’s still quite expensive. The standalone enterprise bundle is about $3500, down from $5000. And you can basically subscribe to the hardware for $150 per month.

But it’s clear now, too, that Microsoft does have a plan to bring HoloLens and its AR capabiltiies to consumers at some point. A surprise appearance by Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, a long-time critic of Microsoft and its online store, was perhaps even more notable for his promise that all of Epic’s endeavors would one day be enabled on HoloLens. Epic is, of course, a game maker.

Before that, HoloLens 2 will serve the same growing group of vertical markets in which its predecessor has found success. And based on what we saw today, that success is only going to grow.

I’m looking forward to trying out HoloLens 2.

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