All posts in “Hololens”

HoloLens 2 will reportedly address the biggest criticism of the first model

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Back in 2016 Microsoft entered the augmented-reality game with HoloLens, a headset that delivered a true mixed reality, combining the real world with virtual images on a transparent display.

Developers and early adopters quickly realized that, while HoloLens was promising, it was being held back by its small field of view. However, this will reportedly change with the second generation of the hardware.

The Verge reports Microsoft is planning to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year. Codenamed Sydney (a name first revealed by Thurrott), the new model will apparently address the biggest criticism of the current HoloLens: its limited field of view. HoloLens 2 will improve things, the report says, but it’s unclear by how much. 

HoloLens 2 should have the latest Kinect sensor onboard as well as a proprietary artificial intelligence chip. Both of these should improve the visuals and latency, creating a more immersive mixed-reality experience.

While details are still scarce, the second-generation headset will be built around an ARM-based processor (the current model uses a discontinued Intel chip), which could bring better battery life, allowing users to be in the mixed reality for a longer period of time. 

There will likely be a larger focus on consumers with the new model. So far HoloLens has mostly been a developer and enterprise play, and it carries a high price tag ($3,000 for the developer edition, $5,000 for the commercial “suite”). Hopefully the second generation will be more affordable, bringing the tech to a new class of customers.

Microsoft is expected to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year, but don’t expect to your hands on one until 2019.

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HoloLens acts as eyes for blind users and guides them with audio prompts

Microsoft’s HoloLens has an impressive ability to quickly sense its surroundings, but limiting it to displaying emails or game characters on them would show a lack of creativity. New research shows that it works quite well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions.

The researchers, from CalTech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it, right?

Crunching visual data and producing a map of high-level features like walls, obstacles, and doors is one of the core capabilities of the HoloLens, so the team decided to to let it do its thing and recreate the environment for the user from these extracted features.

They designed the system around sound, naturally. Every major object and feature can tell the user where it is, either via voice or sound. Walls, for instance, hiss (presumably a white noise, not a snake hiss) as the user approaches them. And the user can scan the scene, with objects announcing themselves from left to right from the direction in which they are located. A single object can be selected and will repeat its callout to help the user find it.

That’s all well for stationary tasks like finding your cane or the couch in a friend’s house. But the system also works in motion.

The team recruited seven blind people to test it out. They were given a brief intro but no training, and then asked to accomplish a variety of tasks. The users could reliably locate and point to objects from audio cues, and were able to find a chair in a room in a fraction of the time they normally would, and avoid obstacles easily as well.

This render shows the actual paths taken by the users in the navigation tests.

Then they were tasked with navigating from the entrance of a building to a room on the second floor by following the headset’s instructions. A “virtual guide” repeatedly says “follow me” from an apparent distance of a few feet ahead, while also warning when stairs were coming, where handrails were, and when the user had gone off course.

All seven users got to their destinations on the first try, and much more quickly than if they had had to proceed normally with no navigation. One subject, the paper notes, said “That was fun! When can I get one?”

Microsoft actually looked into something like this years ago, but the hardware just wasn’t there — HoloLens changes that. Even though it is clearly intended for use by sighted people, its capabilities naturally fill the requirements for a visual prosthesis like the one described here.

Interestingly, the researchers point out that this type of system was also predicted more than 30 years ago, long before they were even close to possible:

“I strongly believe that we should take a more sophisticated approach, utilizing the power of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of detailed visual information in order to substitute for the missing functions of the eye and much of the visual pre-processing performed by the brain,” wrote the clearly far-sighted C.C. Collins way back in 1985.

The potential for a system like this is huge, but this is just a prototype. As systems like HoloLens get lighter and more powerful, they’ll go from lab-bound oddities to everyday items — one can imagine the front desk at a hotel or mall stocking a few to give to vision-impaired folks who need to find their room or a certain store.

“By this point we expect that the reader already has proposals in mind for enhancing the cognitive prosthesis,” they write. “A hardware/software platform is now available to rapidly implement those ideas and test them with human subjects. We hope that this will inspire developments to enhance perception for both blind and sighted people, using augmented auditory reality to communicate things that we cannot see.”

A man played AR ‘Super Mario Bros.’ in Central Park and no one thought it was weird

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Not to detract from the cool tech creation here, but programmer Abhishek Singh’s augmented reality reimagining of Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 for HoloLens isn’t even the craziest thing about this video. That honor goes instead to the total indifference expressed by every pedestrian in New York’s Central Park.

How do you witness a spectacle like this and just keep on walking? If I came across a man dressed like a video game plumber and wearing a future-tech headset in midtown Manhattan, you can be damn sure I’d stop to see what he’s doing.

Singh’s rebuilt version of World 1-1 isn’t a perfect replica, largely because Super Mario Bros. was never built to be played in a 3D space. Instead of trying to climb imaginary block hills or leap across deadly drops, Singh simply walks around them.

It’s like the world’s dumbest (and most amazing) cheat code. I’ve got to try this, somehow.

Cardboard augmented reality goggles? Please, no. We’ve done this dance before.

No. Just, no. We do not need a series of “Google Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices to help usher us into the age of augmented reality

But yes, that’s exactly what at least two companies are trying to do: Sell you cardboard devices that use your smartphone to create a kind of low budget HoloLens for a fraction of the price. 

In just the last couple of weeks I’ve seen the emergence of cardboard-framed AR devices for smartphones from Aryzon (about $32) and Holokit. Both are promoted as cheap alternatives to pricier, higher end AR (or “mixed reality”) devices and both have videos showing off how they work. Neither is immediately available to the public yet, but I can see where this is all going. 

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Anyone in our office looking for the history of Google Cardboard devices need only swing by my desk to see the sprawling graveyard of cardboard boxes designed to turn your smartphone into a cheap, mobile VR headset. And while the flurry of excitement over cheap VR via Cardboard simmered for a couple of years, interest has largely died out. 

If you’re really interested in VR, you can either pick up a fairly cheap Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream View headset and the compatible smartphones that go with them. Similarly, those looking for the best VR have high-end options in the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive

Yes, cheap, cardboard AR devices are a brilliant idea on paper. And if a friend had come up with it over drinks and showed me a proof of concept I would’ve probably raved about it. But then I would’ve woken up the next morning, slammed a searing hot mug of coffee down my throat and then come to my senses, sending him a text saying, “Don’t do it.”    

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Sure, AR is part of our virtual future alongside VR, and will likely have greater reach due to its integration with the real world versus the relative isolation inherent to VR. And when the hardware that moves us from experiencing AR on our smartphone screens arrives, perhaps in the form of fashionable glasses and not unwieldy, incredibly expensive headsets like the HoloLens, that will indeed be a glorious day. But attempting to give us a middle ground in the form of a cardboard device isn’t the answer. 

We know this because we’ve been here before.     

The problem is, while VR via Cardboard devices introduced large numbers of people to the “idea” of VR, ultimately, the low quality experiences led many to assume that they’d sampled the “state of the art” in VR—and so they moved on and didn’t even consider the higher end, far more immersive and interactive options. 

Rather than serve as the perfect gateway drug, VR on Cardboard actually polluted the virtual waters, leading many to dismiss the technology as a gimmick.

Things will get better for VR, but in the short term, Cardboard did more harm than good.

That is not the fate we want for AR.

The HoloKit

The HoloKit

Sure, AR apps dealing with commerce, mapping, and gaming will almost certainly drive wide adoption of AR on smartphones and tablets in the near term, regardless of how they’re delivered early on. But tech “culture” can sometimes be just as important as the tech itself, and if something is framed as a gimmick, or a fad, meaningful platform development can suffer. The Google Glass “glasshole” debacle taught us that lesson as well. 

But the biggest indictment against “Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices is obvious: You don’t need them. Whereas the pretense with VR via Google Cardboard was that the cardboard box could close off your viewpoint to mimic an immersive headset, with cardboard-framed AR, you don’t need a “headset” or “cradle” since you’re already using your smartphone to look at AR objects anyway. Using low cost mirrors and lenses, these new cardboard devices do appear to add an additional sense of depth to the AR objects (based solely on the demo videos) while you press the box to your face, but these passive viewing devices are of limited use to all but the mildly AR curious. 

This is a clever solution without a problem.  

And just because it’s clever and possible doesn’t always mean you should do it. 

Now if they can recraft these cardboard clever contraptions into a sleek, hands-free wearable glasses sooner than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, I’ll be first in line to buy a pair. 

But until we get real AR glasses, or even cheaper, lightweight HoloLens or Meta 2 devices, AR via smartphone, sans cardboard, works just fine, thanks. 

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Microsoft introduces motion controllers for mixed reality headsets

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Microsoft’s mixed reality headsets will soon have dedicated motion controllers of their own. 

The company is teaming up with hardware makers to make controllers for Windows-powered mixed reality headsets, like the upcoming headset from Acer. 

As with the third party headsets, Acer will be the first company to sell the controllers. The company plans to offer a bundle at the end of the year that includes the controllers and the headset for $399. 

Microsoft notes that the controllers don’t require external hardware or sensors, unlike those used by the HTC Vive and some other headsets. 

“The motion controllers offer precise and responsive tracking of movement in your field of view using the sensors in your headset,” Microsoft’s Terry Myerson writes in a blog post. “We created the controllers as a high-quality and comfortable input device with the same ease of set up and portability as our headsets.”

In addition to Acer, Microsoft is also working with HP on a motion controller and mixed reality headset. HP’s headset will cost $329 when it goes on sale. The company is accepting pre-orders now.

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