The AR headset is here, but some of its key software tools are still to come. Here's why it's so expensive.
Microsoft's HoloLens 2 augmented reality headset, which was introduced at Mobile World Congress back in February, is now available to buy, the company announced Thursday. Earlier this year, Microsoft showed CNET the next-generation headset up-close. The self-contained, comfortable flip-up device has no controllers. It uses hand and eye tracking, and slides over glasses. I was impressed how easy it was to use.
I had a second chance to try HoloLens 2 a week ago, and its easy-access design again stood out. But HoloLens 2 isn't trying to woo home users yet -- it's going for corporations. The next-generation AR headset is built off a Qualcomm system-on-a-chip and is targeted at enterprise, not mainstream customers. But it's part of a new wave of AR tech ahead of rumors that Apple may have an AR headset as soon as next year.
The future of augmented reality, which involves layering virtual objects on top of and in relation to real things, still isn't fully here yet. Companies including Facebook, Google, Apple, Magic Leap and Microsoft are all trying to make headway, both on phones and through dedicated hardware. Microsoft's betting on cloud processing to render graphics and send them down to small, low-powered headsets like the HoloLens 2, and world-mapping technology that can pin virtual objects to coordinates that lots of people can see at once. It's a wild AR future vision.
But Microsoft's remote rendering technology is still in private beta, while spatial anchor technology, which will help headsets like the HoloLens to place 3D objects in the real world, is in public beta. (Microsoft's upcoming phone-based game, Minecraft Earth, will be the first AR experience on deck to explore multiplayer AR with shared worlds later this month.) According to Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft, HoloLens 2 will add these features next year, too.
In the meantime, HoloLens 2 is still the lightest, most comfy way to see projected 3D images that layer on top of reality. Diving into some demos, I appreciated the improved hand tracking, especially. I painted by pinching my fingers and drawing in the air, and picking up parts of my 3D art and dragging them around the room.
In a meeting room in Microsoft's 5th Avenue store in New York, I raise my hand like a superhero and cast beams to select app icons, opening them by tapping two fingers together. A training program in Microsoft's Dynamics 365 Guides app shows me how to fix an engine floating in front of me: I can walk around it, leaning in and examining steps. I twist my wrist and I see a Microsoft logo: I tap it to bring up a menu where I can press virtual app buttons with my finger, launching things like I'm Iron Man. The HoloLens 2 headset rests easily on my head. With no controller, I start to forget I'm wearing it sometimes, and the hardware melts away a bit.
Microsoft's Sullivan says that original HoloLens apps won't work automatically with the HoloLens 2, but can be ported over with minimal effort. The handful of apps available now may not be much, and Microsoft is leaning on its Dynamics 365 service to offer hook-ins and tools for business customers. The HoloLens 2 costs $3,500, or sold with a Dynamics 365 Remote Assist subscription, about $4,500.
The HoloLens 2 isn't made for any everyday people yet, but I can definitely say it's the easiest augmented reality setup I've ever tried. It just costs a lot right now to get a taste of it.