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GeekWire’s Nat Levy tests the Microsoft HoloLens 2.

When Microsoft first unveiled the next-generation HoloLens “mixed reality” headset in February, executives promised a more comfortable and immersive experience that is easier to navigate out of the box. The device isn’t slated to come out until later this year, so it’s been challenging to put these claims to the test. But at Microsoft’s recent Build developer conference in Seattle, we got a chance to play around with HoloLens 2 and check out some of its new capabilities.

I’ve tried just about every augmented and virtual reality headset out there, including the Magic Leap One, original HoloLens, HTC Vive, several Oculus headsets and Windows Mixed Reality devices. The new HoloLens feels like an upgrade over what’s available today. It’s more powerful, requires less hardware while staying cool with a comfortable fit and comes with the backing of Microsoft’s ecosystem.

HoloLens 2 was set to be heavily featured at Build this year, with a planned re-enactment of the Apollo 11 moon landing to kick off CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote. However, the plan backfired due to an unspecified technical glitch and the live demo was scrubbed. HoloLens 2 didn’t get its moment in the sun, or moon.

In testing out HoloLens 2, it’s clear the device improves over the original in the ways the company described. It’s significantly more comfortable to wear, applications are easier to navigate and the field of vision is much larger. However, I was taken out of the experience from time to time because the device still can’t project out to cover the entire area that the human eye can see, and it is still a little clunky to wear.

The device is an incremental improvement on the original HoloLens, fixing some of the flaws of the first-generation device. The improved technology opens up more possibilities, so it will be interesting to see what kind of apps are built for the device. That will ultimately decide how big of a step forward HoloLens 2 is for the company’s mixed reality push.

Here’s how the device stacked up to the company’s claims, and a few other things we noticed.

HoloLens 2. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Fit and feel: I’ve worn the original HoloLens on several occasions, and almost every time I’ve left with a headache or feeling some strain, even if I was just wearing it for a few minutes. That wasn’t the case with the new device.

HoloLens 2 is only 13 grams lighter than the original, but the weight is better distributed and it has more padding. In the original, much of the primary hardware in the device is packed into the front, on the user’s forehead, with the batteries on the sidebars. This time around, the main functions are split, with the batteries and a tablet computer sitting on the back of the head and the sensors and cameras on the front, including the fourth generation of the Kinect camera that was originally invented for Xbox. The computer in the back — powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 SoC chip — stayed cool the whole time I wore the device.

My only gripe with the feel is how it sits on my head. This may not be true for everyone, but the field of vision worked best with the device off the bridge of my nose. This was true of the original as well, though I was able to wear HoloLens 2 in a slightly more natural position.

The device is fitted similar to a hard hat with an adjustable wheel in the back to loosen and tighten. The original HoloLens required you to loosen it way up to get it off, thereby losing the fit for next time. This one comes off a little easier, without having to significantly adjust the fit.

This is the HoloLens 2 demo Microsoft hoped to show at Build. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Field of vision: One of the big knocks on the first HoloLens was a narrow field of vision, but the new version has doubled that. The original had a smaller window to allow for the clearest possible images. For example, a repairman needs to be able to read tiny print in a virtual manual.

The technology has advanced to the point that Microsoft was able to stretch the field of vision without losing image quality. To make that happen, Microsoft completely redid the display. It is a combination of a “quantum well laser that is directed at a micro electro-mechanical system and oscillating mirror,” said Greg Sullivan, director of communications for Microsoft’s mixed reality division.

I can’t tell you what any of that means, but it sounds interesting. Without this technology, the device would have to be bigger, bulky and would probably run hotter to support stretching the field of vision.

Despite all this innovation, the field of vision is still just a portion of what your eyes can see. Stand too close to something, and parts of it might get cut off.

The images aren’t full augmented reality renderings. They are true holograms, and that definitely doesn’t take away from the experience. Plus, they are much more interactive than in the first HoloLens.

“In the original one there was an abstraction between you and the holograms themselves,” Sullivan said. “You actually couldn’t directly interact with them. You had this kind of mediated thing where you look at it with a gaze and then you’d airtap.”

In one demo, I held my hand out and a holographic bird landed on it. If I moved my hand, the bird followed it around. And when I dropped the hand, the bird went back to its “nest.”

Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman unveils HoloLens 2. (Screenshot Via YouTube)

More commands: The original HoloLens primarily relied on a thumb-forefinger tap motion that’s a lot like clicking a mouse. HoloLens 2 includes the ability to click things with a single finger like pushing a button while close by and grab items with one or two hands.

“With the first version you had to go through a training class to learn how to do the gestures,” Sullivan said. “Here I basically put it on your head and said ‘go interact.’ And that’s the idea, that you should be able to just kind of reach out.”

The demos I got to see where pretty basic, as the device is not yet a finished product. I was able to read GeekWire on a web browser pinned to the wall. I inspected a windmill and turbine, both of which I could rotate, re-size and pin to me, so that wherever I walked around the room the image would follow me.

This last feature seems particularly useful given Microsoft’s emphasis on uses like construction and manufacturing. Last year, the company unveiled a new app for HoloLens and Dynamics 365 called Remote Assist, which let users open up video calls, call up manuals and annotate the real world. To be able to pin a video call with an expert, manual, blueprint or other key document to your presence as you walk around inspecting equipment could be a very useful feature.

Or in a consumer setting, users could pin a TV show while they walking around the house picking up and doing chores.

There are other small changes that have nothing to do with technological advances that make a difference. The clearest example is the ability to flip the visor up and hop out of the experience without removing the headset.

HoloLens 2. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Last week, Microsoft unveiled the $3,500 Development Edition of HoloLens 2, and in addition to the headset it includes $500 in credits for Microsoft’s Azure Mixed Reality developer platform and a three-month trial of the Unity Pro game development platform and the Unity PiXYZ Plugin for CAD data.

HoloLens is at the center of the tech giant’s mixed reality strategy. Microsoft executives have long pointed to the concept, the mixture of the virtual and physical worlds, as the third wave of computing, following the revolutions that came with personal computers and mobile devices.

The company introduced HoloLens in 2015. The device differs from the Windows Mixed Reality headsets made by partners like Samsung and Lenovo in that it is marketed primarily to developers and businesses at a much higher price point.

But Microsoft’s mixed reality platform extends beyond hardware. The tech giant upped its commitment to mixed reality in 2017 with the introduction of Windows Mixed Reality as part of a major Windows 10 update that brought 20,000 apps and games to the Microsoft Store.

And perhaps its most impactful entry is yet to come, at least on the gaming front. Nadella’s Build keynote closed with a quicker teaser for an augmented reality Minecraft game that works on smartphones, similar to the smash hit Pokémon Go.

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