Microsoft Setting The Pace for Augmented Reality with HoloLens 2

At Mobile World Congress 2019, Microsoft released the next version of their HoloLens augmented/mixed reality headset. I had a chance to get a deeper dive from Microsoft on HoloLens 2 as well as try the new headset out. There are several things that stood out to me that I felt were foreshadowing of what’s to come from Augmented Reality headsets in the future.

Retina Secure Log-In and Eye Tracking
The first big feature has to do with our eyes. HoloLens 2 has a retina scan log-in, so anyone who puts on the headset can be logged into their account. The result is personalization since the device calibrates to each individual’s unique facial features. Beyond that, when it identifies the user, you can then go to your personal software experience or dashboard. In its first instance, you can imagine this being useful for enterprises so each employee doesn’t need their own dedicated HoloLens but can pick one up off the charger and then use it as if it was their own.

The second major feature, which demos much better than one would expect, is eye-tracking. This has been something many AR/VR headsets have tried to implement but having a true eye-tracking experience is hard to find. In the eye-tracking demo, a blue hummingbird hologram shows up on your screen and flies around. Around the bird are orbs and to interact with the orb, you simply had to look at it. Then, with a series of voice commands you could interact with the orb you were looking at all without using your hands and only using your eyes and voice.

Again for an enterprise example, imagine you are an airplane mechanic and laying under an airplane engine with your hands tied up working. You can use the HoloLens to be looking at repair manuals or getting information on the Internet, and just by using your eyes and voice be able to interact with the relevant content.

I’ve had a few eye-tracking demos with AR/VR headsets before, but none of them worked as promised. HoloLens 2 worked as advertised and having a quality user experience using just my eyes and voice as the IO was a pretty profound experience.

Microsoft also greatly increased the field-of-view and made the display area in which to see holograms much larger. This was a huge step up from the small square display area of HoloLens 1, but for this technology to go mainstream the field-of-view still needs to get much larger.

Cloud and Cross Platform
As compelling as the hardware demos were, two things stood out to me on the software front. While we have known for some time the future of AR will largely be based on cloud computing, meaning most the core processing will happen in the cloud, it was interesting to see this vision finally realized. Microsoft has been building their Azure cloud platform to bring AR/holographic computing to market. While HoloLens 2 has a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, there is still a lot of computing being done in the cloud to bring high quality and visually rich holograms to life. HoloLens was a true example of how more computing power will move to the cloud, with some computing done on the edge device.

The power of the cloud as a computing platform will not be able to ignore with wearables, and AR headsets specifically. This is why Microsoft and Google seem to be more in control of the AR world than say Apple at this point. For everyone analyzing and thinking about Apple and the future, addressing how Apple will approach a cloud computing platform is a fascinating thought exercise. Apple is not vertical in its usual sense when it comes to the cloud in that, at the moment, Apple runs all its cloud technology on someone else platform. You can argue Apple should go vertical when it comes to cloud as well in the future and if they don’t, they may not be as in control of their AR future as someone like Microsoft, Google, or Amazon are given the cloud platforms each own.

Going further down this rabbit hole, the last big thing that stood out to me with HoloLens 2, has really more to do with Azure than HoloLens. In one of the demos I had from Microsoft, they showed how their Azure platform could enable and AR experience on any hardware. To do this they had the same spatially locked Hologram, a mock-up of a construction project which was a new Microsoft Campus, and while I was using the HoloLens to walk around and view what the new structure would look like, others were doing the same thing using their iPhone or Android phone. This experience solidified to me how the shift to cloud computing-based software and platforms will likely lead to a much more cross-platform experience going forward.

I loosely call this my end of walled gardens theory, and if the shift from local computing resources to cloud computing resources does take place, it has many implications for companies who are used to controlling most of their experience on local hardware. My sense is that as consumers get a taste of walls coming down, there will be no going back.

Overall, HoloLens 2 is impressive from a technical front and a cloud platform front. It is the first HoloLens that is coming to market as a complete product and not an engineering sample like HoloLens 1 was. After using it, it is clear that Microsoft is setting the pace with AR and leading by example. While that does not mean they win the race, I’m significantly more confident Microsoft can compete in the shift to AR platforms much more so than they could with the shift to smartphones.

Unlike in mobile, Microsoft is already in a leadership position when it comes to cloud computing platforms. This position puts them in a great position to lead in this next phase of computing around AR. The cloud platform is the underlying framework that sets Microsoft up nicely. Like Windows, Azure can be hardware agnostic, and Microsoft is more concerned about bringing holographic computing to any hardware via the Azure platform than they are about making hardware. If I’m right about walled gardens coming down this strengthens Microsoft’s position even more.
It seems odd to say this, given history, but the next battle may be between Apple and Microsoft.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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