Inside the design of Microsoft’s Hololens 2

Published 10 November 2019, 21:06

Carl Ledbetter is sharing, for the first time, how the company built its newest product: the Hololens 2.

Announced in early 2019, nearly a year ago, the first Hololens 2 orders will be delivered for $3,500.

The Hololens 2 weighs just 13 grams, or about half an ounce, lighter than the Hololens 1. But it’s measurably three times more comfortable to wear.

BUILDING “INSTINCTUAL INTERACTION”

The first Hololens launched in 2016. 

The UI was confusing. You couldn’t grab or poke the holograms as you’d expect.  The field of view was constantly disappointing. Holograms were consistently cropped in your view, destroying the illusion. Hololens 2 addresses these shortcomings with twice the viewable area and better onboard AI, which allows you to grab corners of a hologram to stretch it out—or just snatch the whole thing with your hand.

Another highlight of the new model? When you first put on the device,  a fluttering hummingbird streaks into the scene. It darts around before landing on you. The hummingbird is the first thing Hololens 2 users will experience when putting on the headset out of the box, and one of those magical moments you hear about in mixed reality. 

Microsoft dubs this approach “instinctual interaction” or “instinctual design,” and it wants to build it into every part of the Hololens experience. The idea is to make learning the UX feel natural, rather than instructive, right down to how you put on the new headset.

Truthfully, the hardware itself is still the biggest single barrier to the mass realization of mixed reality. 

Microsoft heard all this feedback from its early adopters, and made the Hololens 2 design to be more comfortable.

“TECHNOLOGY SHOULD NOT BE FASHION”
Ledbetter, along with Microsoft technical fellow Alex Kipman, both agree that the ultimate incarnation of Hololens would be a pair of glasses that was so thin and light it would be indistinguishable from what you’d buy at LensCrafters. “But the reality is, the technology just isn’t there yet,” says Ledbetter.

Kipman takes a philosophical approach to the headset, arguing that you have to embrace what it is as a tool, not what it could be as an accessory.

“[Hololens is] not made to be fashionable,” Kipman says. “Technology should not be fashion. Fashion is ephemeral and expires. Hardware should be timeless . . . if aliens come to Earth thousands of years from now, do archeology, and find these devices, they should understand . . . that it’s something meaningful.”

A COMPUTER SHAPED BY ANATOMY

One other major design issue these prototypes were constructed to test was weight. What the team had realized all too well was that the Hololens 1 was front heavy. 

In an extensive prototyping process, they weighed down these various Hololens contraptions with dumb, dead mass, just to understand what the comfort gains and losses would be with varying designs. What they found was that if Hololens was balanced about 50/50 to the front and back of the head, they could reduce the activation of supportive neck muscles by three.

And then there were the final concerns: How do you get the Hololens on? How do you take it off? What the team handed on was a design that, after being adjusted one time, could be taken on and off just like a baseball cap—possible through a combination of ergonomics, forgivingly stretchable materials, pivoting components, and that aforementioned back adjustment tool. And as for the laser lenses themselves, those can moved aside, too.

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