Microsoft has made its augmented reality device — HoloLens — a little more practical for the real world.
The HoloLens 2, which is available for preorders and will start shipping later this year, feels lighter than the original, though Microsoft hasn't said how much it weighs. While trying it last week, I found it to be more comfortable than the first version and less difficult to control.
Microsoft created the HoloLens to merge computing with real life, overlaying holograms on actual space. Police officers can use it to store evidence at crime scenes for later review, and designers can use it to review prototypes for new cars.
When I tried on the HoloLens 2, I was immediately impressed. In addition to its lightness, the new gadget is more comfortable, in part because the battery and other computing components were moved from the front of the headset to the back, distributing the weight.
I spent 20 minutes or more in the headset — I lost track of time — and didn't ever feel like I wanted to take it off. I like that it's now possible to flip up the lenses, similar to how you'd flip up clip-on sunglasses.
There's also an enlarged field of view, making it easier for the user to view the holograms that are being virtually displayed. At one point, I was shown a three-dimensional diorama of a coastline full of wind turbines. I pinched on one corner of the hologram and expanded it to make it look like it was several feet wide in front of me. I had to step back to get a full horizontal view.
A Microsoft employee guided me through the demonstration, which at times was more distracting than it was helpful. That's because there's so much going on with the visuals that it can be hard to concentrate on a conversation.
I was most impressed with the eye-tracking technology on the HoloLens 2.
With the predecessor device, If you wanted to select an object, it took time for the object to recognize your gaze, and you could then make a hand gesture. You needed to tilt your head and sometimes walk around. Eye tracking, which takes just a minute to configure, now seems to be faster and more accurate. Plus, it lets you quickly log in with Windows Hello (facial recognition), just like if you have a Windows 10 device and a camera.
At one point in the demonstration, I was shown a box full of text, and the text continued beyond the bottom of the box. This is where eye tracking worked really well. As I read the last line or two, the text slid upward, revealing the next lines. When I wanted to go back to the beginning, I just moved my eyes to the top of the box, and the text was there for me to read.
Eye-tracking technology is in headsets from companies like HTC and Magic Leap. But those companies aren't embedded inside big enterprises, which is where Microsoft is primarily targeting the HoloLens 2. The device will cost $3,500, so it certainly isn't priced for consumers.
Although I didn't get to spend a long time testing the new HoloLens, I did come away with the sense that Microsoft has made very good changes that could help it gain traction. Hardware isn't Microsoft's biggest source of revenue, but these updates could make devices a bigger piece of the overall pie.