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Hands-on at home with Microsoft's HoloLens 2

Microsoft's AR headset still feels like a taste of a future yet to come -- and reminds me what the future still needs to do.

Wearing a HoloLens 2 at home, testing Microsoft Mesh. Holograms in the home office.

Scott Stein/CNET

Microsoft recently invited me to join mixed reality pioneer Alex Kipman, the company's technical fellow for Windows mixed reality, in a one-on-one chat. The difference was it wasn't on Zoom, or Teams: It was gathered around a virtual table that sprouted up in my home office.

A holographic cartoon version of Kipman hovered in my space, and I walked around him. The only thing I needed to connect was a self-contained visor I wore over my face: the Microsoft HoloLens 2. My test-drive of the HoloLens 2 at home, for the first time ever, showed me where AR glasses are likely to head. And, also, the challenges that have yet to be solved. Microsoft Mesh, a technology promising a way to beam people into the same shared virtual space, shows amazing promise. But the hardware that will make the most of it hasn't quite arrived.

The HoloLens 2 has been around for over a year, but not to you or to me. It's sold as an enterprise device, meaning it's a $3,500 headset that's intended for people in workplaces that can afford it. Unlike VR headsets, it's not really designed to play games. And Microsoft never sent review units of the HoloLens 2 out before this: My demos were always in controlled spaces, for limited amounts of time. When Microsoft offered to send a loaner HoloLens 2 out as part of its mixed-reality software announcement, I was extremely intrigued. It's still a really new device to me.

Bear in mind that this is an AR headset, not a VR headset: Its lenses are transparent. The HoloLens 2 overlays glowing virtual objects that seem to exist in the real world. The only other headset like it is the Magic Leap One, also a business device (which I once got to try in my office for a week or so). It's not about entering a virtual space, but about being in my own space and putting stuff on top of it. All those Marvel and Kingsman and Star Wars dreams about holograms you can interact with, well, that's Microsoft's goal. As Qualcomm and Facebook and maybe Apple (and others) work on AR headsets, the HoloLens 2 looks like the prototype for what's next.

The HoloLens 2 isn't quite at that goal, but no one is. Still, it may come closer right now than anything else.

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HoloLens 2, Oculus Quest 2: both standalone, both easy to start up. One's AR, one's VR.

Scott Stein/CNET

It reminds me, oddly, of the Oculus Quest 2

The headset is surprisingly compact and about the same size as (though it feels lighter than) the Oculus Quest 2, Facebook's self-contained VR headset. While the Quest 2 is $300 and the HoloLens 2 is more than $3,000, there's a spiritual similarity to both. They're both standalone devices that don't need PCs or phones to use. They both fit easily over my head and fit over my prescription glasses. 

The self-contained and easy-to-use feel of both serves a similar purpose: get people into VR (or AR) fast and without cable tangles or weird interfaces.

That's where the similarities end.

Look, no controllers

The Oculus Quest and HoloLens 2 both allow hand tracking, but Facebook uses it as an alternative to the Quest's controllers. Hand tracking on the Oculus Quest works surprisingly well, but the HoloLens 2 has no controllers at all: Everything is done with your hands. That's where the HoloLens 2 shines... and has awkward moments, too.

To touch virtual things, like buttons or keyboards, I reach my fingers out and tap them. To grab an object, I pinch the edge. I open the HoloLens menu by looking at my wrist and tapping a button that appears there, glowing. To control far-off things, I open my hand and cast a beam like I'm Vision. There's a feeling of having supernatural powers that flows through the HoloLens interface.

On my own, I try playing a game called Roboraid on the HoloLens 2, where things pop out of my walls -- I tried a variation of this game many years ago at an E3 demo, but at home, I use my hands to play. Pinching and pointing and tapping my fingers together is a lot of what HoloLens 2 requires. The arm gestures can get tiring. I'd like simple shortcuts. And also, a controller would be nice. I can't get any feedback like vibration, which is where a wristband or ring or neural input tech down the road, like what Facebook has planned, comes in. Some sort of controller could help make gestures more minimal and even let me feel what I'm doing.

Even with the limits of the HoloLens' smaller-than-desired display, I can draw in 3D in my room, scribbling lines from my bookshelf and annotating actual objects. I put virtual objects alongside real ones. The virtual, glowing ones stay in place, and when I come back later, HoloLens 2 on, they're still there.

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The HoloLens 2's flip-down lenses. The headset can also track my eyes.

Scott Stein/CNET

Eye tracking: A technology waiting in the wings

The HoloLens 2 also has eye tracking, something that current non-business VR headsets don't. Eye tracking is subtle, but it allows me to look at an object -- like an open app window across the room -- and say "close app," and it knows which one to close. For moments where I talk to people in AR, they could potentially see my virtual avatar eyes moving because the eye tracking is noticing where I'm looking.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants eye tracking on future VR and AR headsets for that same purpose, to map facial expressions and eye movements to realistic avatars. Microsoft's tech, however, being business-focused, contains the use of that eye-tracking data to specific, secure instances. In mainstream headsets and glasses, how will that data be used and shared? We don't yet know.

A floating virtual desktop full of windows

I demoed Microsoft's software and also tried a few other apps. I sat down and tried opening web browsers, then played a game or two (yes, there are a couple). What really struck me was how windows could pop up and float on my desk, or in whatever formation I wanted. I could get up and they'd stay pinned there. They'd even be there the next day. 

Qualcomm's AR smart glasses are designed to be connected displays for phones and PCs. What I'm seeing on the HoloLens 2 feels like a preview of those glasses and what they'll eventually be able to do.

On the HoloLens 2, I'm limited to using my hands (although I guess I could pair a keyboard). I'd love to see what it's like for my laptop to suddenly sprout extra windows and monitors hovering in the air when I put my future smart glasses on.

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The cameras on the HoloLens 2, which can depth-scan my room much like the iPhone 12 Pro's lidar.

Scott Stein/CNET

The displays aren't perfect yet

The HoloLens 2's limited field of view feels like a large window floating in front of me where glowing 3D things appear. But the window isn't wide enough, which means I have to move my head to take in things around the room that I don't know are there. 

The display also has a slightly hazy rainbow-like quality. It's not the perfect vivid display I'd expect on a monitor, or even recent VR headsets. If I want to use an AR headset to see movies, or play games, I'd want something more evolved. It's not easy on a transparent lens, but maybe Micro LED tech could help improve things soon.

What will the killer apps be?

Microsoft's HoloLens 2 uses communications and telepresence as its killer apps for business. It could also excel at giving heads-up instructions in the workplace. But what would the killer apps be for AR glasses sold to everyday people? Would it be fitness? Games? Virtual movie glasses? An extra monitor that can go anywhere?

No one's figured this out yet. Companies like Niantic, makers of what's arguably AR's ultimate killer app, Pokemon Go, are exploring what it's like to play on AR glasses using a HoloLens 2. Microsoft's headset isn't meant to go everywhere. It's not great in bright daylight; it looks big and helmet-like; and the battery life isn't long. But it's probably the best prototype I've ever tried for what AR glasses will need to do next.