MICROSOFT'S FIRST HOLOLENS headset was a seriously interesting piece of kit when it made its debut in 2016.
Packing a head-mounted display with all the processing power needed in the headset and the ability to mess with holograms superimposed over the real-world was undeniably a little taste of future tech sci-fi promised.
But the reality of widespread use of the HoloLens was a bit more complicated. First of all, it only made it into the wild as development and commercial kits costing thousands of dollars.
So while Microsoft showed off the headset's early potential for turning your living room into a semi-virtual Windows 10 environment and letting you blast robots coming out of the goddamn walls, the non-augmented reality of the situation is the headset only really found commercial use.
The HoloLens has been used in various medical, industrial, academic and design situations, aiding surgeons and giving architects a better way to peer into the structures they're creating. There were no HoloLens consumer-grade experiences or any connectivity to things like the Xbox One X.
And Microsoft realised that. Which is why the HoloLens 2 revealed at MWC 2019 is very much targeted at developers and industrial use, such as helping rookie engineers conduct field repairs with the guidance of a seasoned wrench wrangler.
That might not immediately set your pulse racing, but we got the opportunity to pop a HoloLens 2 on our bonce and give it a whirl. And we reckon it's a good sign of what the future of augmented reality holds.
Refined design, slicker smarts
We've tried the previous HoloLens and while it was pretty cool and certainly more advanced than some of the clunky virtual reality headsets around at the time, it still felt a bit heavy.
Using carbon fibre in its construction, the HoloLens 2 is lighter than its predecessor and immediately felt more comfortable to wear. It's not like popping on a pair of specs, but it's certainly more comfortable than some VR goggles and there are no wires to get in the way either.
The headband is swaddled in padding as well to make it reasonably comfortable to wear, though we still reckon you could get a bit toasty if you had to wear it for hours on end. A wheel at the back allows you to loosen or tighten the headband to align the headset with your eyes.
Build quality is uniformly excellent as well, but we'd expect that given how nice Microsoft's Surface devices are.
Once you've got the headset positioned, the HoloLens 2 calibrates itself to suit you by tracking your eyes and hand movements. There's something a little magical about seeing a holographic hummingbird follow our upturned palm around and even our jaded, tired, MWC-bedraggled selves managed to crack a smile at that. The eye tracking also works with Windows Hello for faster logging in, which is a neat touch.
The display has been improved so that there's now a resolution of 2K for each eye, which is a significant improvement from the original's 720p resolution, and it now offers more than double its predecessor's field of view.
In use, this means you can see more stuff and the holograms are much clearer; it's really quite impressive.
Then there's the HoloLens 2's artificial intelligence co-processor, which is dedicated to powering machine learning smarts to better identify, predict and track your gestures.
In combination with a new time-of-flight depth sensor, the HoloLens 2 now allows a wearer to interact more intuitively with holograms, such as grabbing and rotating them, rather than rely on a suite of gestures like pinching two fingers together to 'click'. Again, it's all very cool and more immersive than the previous HoloLens.
When we turned our head, rapidly, the headset took a split second to catch up, but it never felt sluggish. Running a Snapdragon 850 SoC, the Qualcomm chip calibrated for Windows use, means it has enough grunt to power the headset, but the HoloLens isn't quite a head-mounted PC just yet.
Testing, listening, testing
The demo we were taken into was one that involved using the Microsoft Dynamics 365 suite to guide the wearer through repairing part of a plane's landing gear; we can barely sow a patch, let alone carry out machinery repairs in a safe manner.
But using the HoloLens 2 we called up our new friend from Microsoft, Alex, via Skype. By flipping Skype's settings around he was able to use the headset's cameras to see what we were seeing, while we, kinda-physically, placed a virtual window of him at the corner of our field of view.
Through the use of some surprisingly clear audio instructions and by painting and serving up holographic annotations and instructions, as well as some patient guiding, Alex was able to talk us through safely replacing a worn belt of a mock landing gear part.
This was but a fairly straightforward example of what the HoloLens 2 could do. We suspect in more complicated situations, like perusing a car engine design, the headset could be a slicker and more powerful tool for remote collaboration and other enterprise stuff than what the previous HoloLens could deliver.
AR she blows
While the HoloLens 2 is aimed at developers and enterprise users, what with its hefty $3,500 price tag, it's still an impressive demonstration of AR, or as Microsoft calls it, mixed reality, tech.
If Microsoft gets other hardware makers on board, such as Samsung, Acer, Asus, and Lenovo to create mixed reality headsets that err more on the AR rather than VR side of things, drawing inspiration from the HoloLens 2, then we could see the tech become more affordable and widely spread.
If that happened then there's a chance more AR-centric headsets could find their way into consumer use, rather than messing with rather lacklustre mobile AR in the form of Apple Animojis or Pokemon Go.
The improved tracking tech and smart features of the HoloLens 2 could enable proper AR gaming, especially if headsets came with 5G modem chips to allow for rapid connectivity with other headsets and streaming of AR content.
This is all somewhat wishful future gazing from us. But try the HoloLens 2 and you'd likely do the same as it really is yet another step towards a future where AR is as slick and usable as it is in near-future sci-fi flicks. µ