Microsoft’s HoloLens venture is now a little more than four years old, and while it initially launched with what we thought would be a consumer bent as well as its application in the business world, it seems now Microsoft believes the only purpose of this headset is for enterprise users.
HoloLens has grown in the past few years into a tool that can be genuinely useful for a wide range of businesses.
Whether it’s training a particularly difficult skill or to do a job more efficiently, mixed reality is a great way to do that, and the HoloLens has been the leader.
That’s why HoloLens 2 – announced during MWC 2019 – has been unveiled as a purely business tool. Microsoft is doubling down on its enterprise venture, and it's even allowing third-party developers to create apps and tools for the service soon, too.
We took to the Microsoft booth at MWC 2019 to try out a demonstrations of the new headset. With time enough only for one of four demos, medical tech firm Pearson gave us a look at how HoloLens can be used to train medical students in the skill of diagnosing patients.
[Update: We've had more time with HoloLens 2 during Microsoft's Build 2019 developers conference in May 2019. See our updated impressions of the HoloLens 2 interface below.]
Microsoft HoloLens 2 release date and price
HoloLens 2 isn’t likely to be a device you’ll buy on a whim. As it’s an enterprise-led product, it’s not as difficult to stomach its high price, but it’s not cheap in anyone’s book. Microsoft offers packages with the price starting at $125 (about £93, AU$175) a month, or you can buy one outright for $3,500 (about £2,600, AU$4,900).
Those prices for the UK and Australia aren’t exact, and we’ll be sure to update this piece when we learn the specific price for the headset in these regions. You can pre-order the HoloLens 2 now, but we don’t currently have an exact release date for when it'll arrive.
However, we do know as of May 2019 that a Development Edition of the headset will arrive alongside the traditional package sometime later in 2019. This will include $500 worth of Azure cloud service credits and a three-month trial of Unity Pro and the Unity PiXYZ plugin for developers to sink their teeth into.
Design and display
HoloLens was a well-designed mixed reality headset, but as the first-gen product it was clear there were going to need to be some improvements in the future. The main complaints were comfort, especially as this is a device some professionals may be wanting to use for a few hours a day.
That's one of Microsoft's big improvements here, with the design being both smaller and lighter. We immediately noticed the weight difference when we put it on, and it's down to the company's new carbon fiber build.
Although it's lightweight, it still feels premium. It's comfortable to adjust with a wheel at the back of the headset to either tighten or loosen the edges around your head.
There's padding all the way around, and we found it to sit securely on the head, too, so we weren't constantly worried it may fall off. This is a very expensive piece of kit to drop and break in your first five minutes of use.
Overall, if you’ve used the first-gen headset, you’re sure to notice the difference here. If you haven’t, just know that this doesn’t feel uncomfortably heavy on your head, like some virtual reality headsets can.
One issue is you often feel like you want to pull the headset up so you can focus on the task at hand. It’s likely something you get used to over time, but we found our hands drifting toward the headset to try and get a clearer view of what we were looking at.
In fact, that view is one of the big upgrades for the HoloLens 2. It’s a 2K MEMS (or microelectromechanical systems) display that Microsoft has employed here.
It may sound obvious, but the display is transparent, so you can see the augmented reality elements overlaying on top of real world objects. For example, our demo had a patient sitting on the edge of a bed waiting for our diagnosis.
The patient was entirely augmented reality elements, but the bed in the room was real.
We found the view through the headset to be clear, but under some harsh lighting at our MWC demo we found it difficult to spot individual elements. Moving to worse-lit areas improved the display, but it's a shame the headset's brightness struggled under the light.
That's either a quirk of the headset we were using or the lighting, but considering this is a device that’s being touted to work in a clinical setting we’re surprised it struggled in this scenario.
We can say that, in the softer light of a regular demo room at Build 2019, that these visuals were much easier to pick up under standard fluorescent lighting.
The field of view on this headset is now 52-degrees, which beats the original’s 34-degree option. It’s also no longer in a 16:9 aspect ratio, allowing your augmented reality view to be taller.
That may not sound like much on paper, but it means the augmented reality elements are right in front of your eyes, and that's enough. You also don't feel enclosed in, allowing you to move around the real world space without the worry of knocking into items or – much worse – stubbing a toe.
That larger field of view is one of the biggest upgrades here, and that largely means that you’re going to see a lot more in whatever app you’re using on the headset.
Our time with the original HoloLens has been brief, but it was noticeable immediately when we placed the new headset on our head that the display technology was better here.
There are lots of minor functionality upgrades you’ll want to know about here, too.
For example, there’s eye tracking software in here that developers can build into their apps. You’ll have to calibrate this with a 30 second eye tracking demo, but that isn’t too much hassle to navigate around certain interface elements using your eyes.
During our demo, a particularly good use case scenario was simply reading text. A small boxout within the user interface appeared, and when we finished reading a paragraph you could see the text begin to scroll down slowly at the correct speed for what you’re reading at.
We sped up and slowed down our reading speeds, and after a few seconds the eye tracking technology caught up to what we were doing.
Hand tracking tech here was a little temperamental within our demo. Pressing the buttons in the virtual interface would usually produce an immediate response, but other times we were left without anything.
That may be down to this headset not running final software, but it may also be a quirk that will appear in the final version of the headset, too. The headset also comes with a microphone onboard, so you can interact through speech with certain apps.
In our demo, we were asked to speak to a virtual assistant who was helping us to diagnose a patient, but there’s a variety of different use cases for this tech in the new headset.
Back to hand tracking, and it’s worthwhile mentioning one of the big upgrades here, HoloLens 2 can track your exact finger positions, so you can navigate easier and do more minute or dextrous tasks within the interface itself.
We didn’t get much time to play around with this at MWC 2019, but part of the calibration was with a hummingbird coming to sit on the palm of our hand. We found if you had a singular finger up, within a second or so the bird would know to fly down onto the tip of your finger.
It’s one of those simple things that makes the whole experience that much more impressive, and we can’t wait to get our hands on one of these headsets for longer to know exactly how this tech holds up.
Supporting this is a new development in the HoloLens 2 interface seen at Build 2019: conjuring the system-level Start menu is now achieved by lifting the inside of your wrist into the cameras' field of view. This makes a Windows logo appear on your wrist, and tapping that logo is what makes your Start options appear.
This is a massive improvement over the previous method of pinching all of your fingers together and opening them like a blooming flower. However, there is a bit of a learning curve regarding exactly where to position your wrist for the logo to appear. This is still early days for the software, but this new approach is much more logical and promising for the headset's future.
One element we weren’t able to test is the fact the device gets used to your hands and their movements over time. We’re not currently sure how this will impact daily use of the headset, but it’s sure to be something that developers for the platform can embrace and expand upon.
HoloLens 2 looks to improve upon the experience of mixed reality and once again seems to be a market leading product in its own right. Whether these improvements will be worthwhile for the average HoloLens user is unclear, especially considering the price.
Microsoft's Greg Sullivan, chief of communications for the HoloLens division, tells us that HoloLens 2 will continue to be a commercial for years to come. Simply put, it's still just too expensive to develop the product at a price that would be palatable to consumers.
That said, this is a big step forward for the company, with the field of view improvements proving one of the most important to keep the mixed reality space moving.