Microsoft boosts HoloLens performance, seeks corporate users

Microsoft is introducing an improved version of its HoloLens augmented-reality goggles and lowering the price, as it tries to develop a bigger business selling the devices to corporate customers.

At $3,500, the HoloLens 2 with a wider field of view and easier controls than the original is still an expensive piece of gear, but it’s less than the $5,000 cost to commercial users for the first version. The company is also selling the device, which lets users view, move, speak to and interact with 3-D holograms, via a monthly subscription along with a related software app.

MSFT-glasses-CROP.jpg
An attendee wears a Microsoft Corp. HoloLens headset at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Microsoft is pitching the goggles as a tool for workers rather than consumers, envisioning it for tasks such as visually guiding factory workers as they learn new jobs or helping architects design buildings. Education company Pearson and Koninklijke Philips, a health technology provider, are testing the new devices.

Philips has been working with Microsoft to coordinate HoloLens with the health company’s Azurion system for guiding surgeons during minimally invasive procedures. Philips makes machines that help surgeons move tools through the body as they make tiny incisions to remove tumors, for example. HoloLens might be used to do things like provide a three-dimensional view of blood vessels, give each member of the surgical team a personalized data screen in their field of view and control the Azurion machine with voice commands.

“When you’re driving a car, you want to keep both hands on the steering wheel and your eyes on the road. When I am working on a patient, I want to keep my hands on my instruments and my eyes on the patient,” said Atul Gupta, chief medical officer for image guided therapy at Philips. “Technology like HoloLens 2 has finally caught up with our vision of what we wanted to do with mixed reality or augmented reality.”

Speaking during the product’s launch, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella said Microsoft had a responsibility to be a “trusted partner” for companies using its products, such as HoloLens, and that businesses and institutions shouldn’t be dependent on the tech giant.

“The defining technologies of our times, AI and mixed reality, cannot be the province of a few people, a few companies or even few countries,” he said. “They must be democratized so everyone can benefit.”

Unlike virtual reality goggles, which block out a user’s surroundings, the augmented-reality HoloLens overlays holograms on a user’s existing environment, letting them see things like digital instructions on complex equipment.

Microsoft is focusing on corporate customers with HoloLens, and is trying to make the devices more useful right out of the box with prepared applications, rather than require months to write customized programs, says spokesman Greg Sullivan.

There are now more ways to control the holograms via gesture instead of one, somewhat unnatural, exaggerated finger tap that controlled the previous version. The new model tracks a user’s gaze and lets them trigger actions by looking at a hologram. Users can also grab, rotate and resize the holograms with their hands as the device is powered by a new processor that includes an artificial intelligence chip Microsoft developed. That chip also gives the goggles a better idea of what’s going on in a user’s surroundings.

The company also rebalanced the weight of the headset because some users complained the previous version was heavier at the back of the device, a problem given that Microsoft is selling it for factory workers or surgeons who’d wear it for hours at a time.