Microsoft figured it out. Tuesday I got my first opportunity to try out the HoloLens 2, and after slipping it over my head and taking a quick moment to calibrate the eye tracking, I was instantly able to move around the room and interact with objects crafted from light. It was annoyingly natural to participate in an AR world. I saw a helicopter floating over the very real couch, and when I reached for it, the invisible box it was contained in glowed revealing edges I could simply drag and stretch to make the helicopter larger or smaller. With a pinch and a swish, it twirled around. There was nothing on my hands. No special glove or controller. The HoloLens 2 tracked my fingers and knew exactly what to do. It was a perfect interaction. And in the same short amount of time, it became clear that the average person isn’t getting HoloLens any time soon.
The first HoloLens was a promise. Every year after its announcement, Microsoft touted it on stage at its annual developer conference, Build, and it felt like the future of computing was just around the corner. Like Microsoft was preparing to fit us all with big goggles and set us out into a world free of monitors and big clunky computer towers.
But then it started to feel like a tease. In 2017, we even asked where the heck this promised future was. Well, it turns out Microsoft had shifted aspirations from our homes to factories and large corporate environments. In 2018 when I attended Build, I went to multiple HoloLens demos, and they were all focused on what a great tool HoloLens was for people working in factories or repairing heavy machinery.
At Mobile World Congress last week, Microsoft finally showed off the HoloLens 2, and the bulk of the conversation was, again, about where the big AR headset could be used right now. The focus was on those factories. On places of business where specialized tools that make you look dorky are a fact of life because their utility outweighs the dumb factor. It was also on the actual new product, which is an impressive piece of hardware and a significant update to the original HoloLens.
What it’s like to use HoloLens 2
The HoloLens 2 has a larger field of view than the original HoloLens, and about comparable with the Magic Leap One. The field of view is essentially the span of space you can see that’s being augmented. The original HoloLens was 30 degrees by 17.5, while the Magic Leap One is 40 degrees by 30 degrees, and the HoloLens 2 is 43 degrees by 29 degrees. The average human’s field of view is 220 degrees. So the HoloLens 2 has a ways to go. It still provides, essentially, just a window into a VR world. Come closer to an AR object, and you’ll find parts of it cut off as they move out of that narrow FOV.
But the HoloLens 2's field of view is still impressive, AR-wise. Magic Leap accomplishes its similarly sized field of view through a radical new technology that had investors so impressed they pumped billions into the company. Microsoft came up with its own alternative. It shoots lasers at super fast moving mirrors which scatter the light across the reflective lenses and create the AR objects.
It’s a clever solution that allows for a larger FoV than the original HoloLens while taking up less space so Microsoft can pack more sensors and cameras into the front of the headset. (The rear of the headset is the computer and battery that power the whole damn thing.) The headset is consequently comfortable and well-balanced, and it has enough sensors to track your hands (useful for controller-less interactions) and your eyes (useful for making AR objects react more naturally and seem less like stuff stuck on a semi-transparent screen an inch from your eyeballs).
But Microsoft’s decision to use lasers, which provide colored light at very narrow wavelengths (compared to traditional LED displays), presents a problem. A kind of color shift also known as metamerism. The more narrow the wavelength of light, the more likely that your eye and my eye might perceive the same wavelength of color differently. Combined with the way the mirrors scatter the light, it also means the unit I saw has some offensive color shift problems, almost like I was looking at a cheap hologram trading card.
Greg Sullivan, Director of Communication at Microsoft, told me this wasn’t the final software and there was still some work to do on the display to fix these color shift issues. Which kind of sums up AR tech in general. The barriers to smaller headsets right now are in how the information is displayed, not in how we interact with the objects created or even how those objects are created by computers. The display technology has a lot of work to do before these goggles can get down to a size that might make them plausible for regular people to wear on the regular.
Why it’s still not ready for you
Which usually isn’t the case. The HoloLens 2 is doing a whole new type of computing so you would think how you interact with it would be the challenging part. It took us years to get the GUI found in desktop computers, but Microsoft has practically perfected the way we will interact with stuff in augmented reality in a matter of years, and everyone, especially that one magical little AR company, needs to be paying attention to the problems the HoloLens 2 has solved.
And we need to be mindful of the outstanding problems that remain. AR’s utility is far too limited to make it worth it for the average person. I don’t want to wear a big headset while cooking in my kitchen just to see the steps of the recipe without looking at my computer. I’d rather get punched than wear it down the street just to see what direction to turn when headed to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town. Yeah, AR could be useful to the average person right now, but the technology isn’t good enough yet to make any of us want to use it.
It reminds me of early Bluetooth headsets. When you saw someone with that little bug in their ear, you knew they were either doing work or being an asshole. A HoloLens 2 plopped on your head pegs you as much the same. It wasn’t until the Apple AirPods that Bluetooth headsets became ubiquitous. AR headsets are still waiting for their AirPods.
And after using HoloLens 2, it certainly feels like we’ll be waiting a while longer. We’re still in the early days of AR—something even Microsoft’s Sullivan admitted. That other AR company seems to suggest the move to embracing AR will come in one great Leap, but Microsoft is opting for smaller incremental steps.