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MWC: HoloLens 2 — and beyond?

MWC: HoloLens 2 — and beyond?,

HoloLens 2 dominated the MWC. But there was more!

MWC: HoloLens 2 — and beyond?

An XR geek’s perspective on the Mobile World Congress 2019.

The Mobile World Congress has been over for several days already, and I finally had some time to let all those impressions sink in, write this recap to share with you. Just so that you know, I’ve attended a wide variety of conferences in Europe over the past couple of years, from CEBIT to very specialized events like AWE Europe and VRDays. and this wasn’t my first time in Barcelona either! In 2016 I had the chance to visit this beautiful city while attending the OFFF Festival, a creative conference that impressed and inspired me unlike any other event before.

Despite being very much into technology it was the first time I’ve ever attended a conference on the scale of MWC Barcelona. I enjoyed it thoroughly! There were great exhibitors, tons of tech to discover and some surprises as well. A truly solid organization in such a lively & lovely city that Barcelona is. What more can one ask for?

I hope you enjoy my XR (and a bit geeky) view on MWC, which is also my very first article on Medium.com!

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My Highlights

Let’s start with the stuff that generally caught my interest and/or impressed me:

nReal Light: Almost normal yet a bit derpy glasses.

Foldable & Lightweight XR Glasses: It seems trivial and some might even frown upon the nReal Light or Vuzix Blade, but I think competition is important for the industry. In the end, I’m a hands-on guy and after the CES coverage of both devices, I knew I needed to test them personally myself for this MWC review. First up was the nReal Light. The waiting line was so short I thought I’d be done within minutes, but boy was I wrong! Some people are really chatty and in the end it took me around 45 minutes (with only 5 people in front of me and 2 demo stations), until it was my turn. The nReal Light glasses weren’t particularly impressive, however, technology-wise, especially when directly comparing them to higher-end devices such as the HoloLens 2, I found myself really digging the approach the nReal Light was going for. The ability to use your smartphone as computing unit, really added to the super lightweight frame, which I found very comfortable to wear. Also, I was really impressed by the prescription lenses they had, as they offered me the opportunity to adjust the device to my particular vision needs. So, my vision wasn’t impaired with me being forced to stack the device onto my own glasses, which would have been an uncomfortable fit (I’m looking at you, Vuzix). The demo itself was pretty straight forward, showcasing some holographic short movies, but disappointingly with no interaction at all. Too bad, I’d loved to try on their 3DOF controller. The 6DOF tracking of the headset itself worked, however it was a bit jittery. On the other hand, the overall image quality and FOV (field of view) was quite decent… way better than I expected!

Vuzix Blade: Two pairs of glasses and my joyful face.

The Vuzix Blade was a bit more difficult for me to handle. Since they didn’t offer any optional prescription lenses, I therefore had to somehow stack them on top of my own glasses, so to have at least some sense of the experience. It wasn’t very elegant, but it is what it was! The Vuzix demonstration was a “jack of all trades” tour. One exhibit was equipped with the glasses themselves, and then I had to stop at another exhibit station (in a specific order) where Vuzix employees told you about the different experiences: Yelp-eske restaurant reviews, real-time TV statistics and translations, supermarket shopping and product scanning and some skiing with navigation. Sadly, all of this was staged. There was simply a demo application running that felt like being on a rail. Real interaction? None. Vuzix presented more of a general overview of potential use cases, than actual applications. There were some more of the glasses available at the other booth, where one could swipe through the UI and play mediocre games. But this experience felt very limited as well, and at the end, it reminded me a lot of some kind of Google Glass 1.5—for better or for worse.

Opinion: I don’t know if the above-mentioned smartglasses will ever play a relevant role in the consumer market, or XR industry at large (where software support might be too limited in the end), but who knows? Maybe WebXR is a good approach for devices like the nReal Light? They are uncomplicated devices that I found intriguing, and a playful experiential indicator of the direction the XR industry is headed. Zuckerberg’s 2016 F8 keynote vision of almost “normal” looking XR glasses suddenly doesn’t seem so far away now.

HoloLens 2: Dozens of people already wrote about this, so I’ll keep it short. Since I’m very familiar with the first generation of HoloLens, the HoloLens 2 didn’t really blow me away like they may have with many first-time users. However, I fell in love with them nonetheless. It’s (as expected) a beautifully crafted device that incorporates a lot of community feedback, as well as being a well-designed piece of tech. The HoloLens 2 sports very accurate hand & eye tracking, allowing for a whole new level of interactions, thus creating tons of possibilities for MR designers and users. Additionally, it was very comfortable to wear, and I could easily imagine wearing this device for hours. And yes, the FOV has been enlarged, but it could still be a bit wider. Whether it is 2x the size of the original HoloLens or not, I don’t mind as it’s an improvement and much bigger than before.

Microsoft HoloLens 2: The expected update that managed to steal my heart.

At the actual demo site, I got the chance to repair some very arbitrary machines, namely the M20 and S30. Some belt in the S30 was worn down, and a remote operator guided me through the repair measures. The first HoloLens 2 device I tried couldn’t really connect to the mentioned operator (demo effect, I guess), but after exchanging the unit, it all worked as it should. I was making calls, following virtual arrows and instructions, pressing marked buttons and I was sifting through instruction documents with my fingertips and a gaze of my eyes. It all felt so very natural. Plus, I loved the tiny hummingbird that followed the successful eye-tracking calibration a lot.

Opinion: No real surprise here. I’d say the HoloLens 2 will be great for the MR market in general and I’m really looking forward to all the applications that will be released on this gorgeous piece of tech.

Varjo: My, more or less, secret highlight that was almost hidden somewhere in the Finland booth. I read a lot about the high-resolution Varjo VR-1 in advance and I mean A LOT! I talked with many people who experienced using it before. I thought I was prepared for what was to come, but surprisingly I wasn’t. Much to my surprise, the Varjo HMD totally blew me away, surpassing all the expectations I initially had. From the outside, the VR-1 doesn’t seem so special (except the stylish reflective front), it’s a bit bulky, and has no headphones. Yet, on the other hand, my own glasses fit very comfortably… and once wearing the HMD, there is no doubt about the device’s capabilities. It’s simply stunning to “finally” be able to see so clear & detailed in VR. They’re designed with a very cleverly engineered display combination that incorporates a high-res “Focus-Display” in the center of the user’s view and a lower-res “Context-Display” that fills the rest of the FOV. The blending of these two displays is excellent. You really have to take a close look, to differentiate between the two of them.

Varjo VR-1: As sharp as it gets atm.

For the first demo, they dropped me in a flight control center surrounded by displays. Everything was so clean & crisp, I could easily read every single line of text while controlling additional information with selecting UI elements with a simple gaze of my eyes, using their eye-tracking technology. The planes on the airfield looked absolutely stunning, as did the mountains in the background. The second demo was a high-quality photogrammetry scan of an artist’s studio. The details, once again, were astounding, I could even read the spine of almost every CD sitting on a shelf without any problem. The two following cases, a photogrammetry scan of a Japanese garden with its dynamic day & night lighting, as well as an immensely detailed airplane cockpit that didn’t fail to impress. Right now, the Varjo VR-1 is targeted at those professionals in architecture, creation, engineering, education, etc., where professionals in those fields could potentially greatly benefit from such a high resolution… hence the hefty price tag at almost $6,000 USD. Niko Eiden, CEO of Varjo, revealed that his company is also working on a Mixed Reality module, that includes two high-res cameras that will turn the VR-1 into a Mixed Reality headset, and a professional XR controller as well. Those will be more precise than the competition and will be explicitly designed with their professional target groups in mind.

Opinion: I already had high expectations, but the Varjo VR-1 managed to exceed them. The headset is an amazing glimpse into the future for not only VR, but also MR as well, especially considering that it’s a first generation device! The higher resolution output is a total game changer and I just can’t wait for more products from Varjo… whether it be their Mixed Reality module or professional grade XR controllers. I’m totally sold. Surely, it’s not a device for consumers, but I can’t wait for mainstream VR devices to achieve that same superior quality.

Other things that impressed me

A small collection of interesting things, and realizations.

Microsoft: In general, its overall strategy and even seemingly nice little products like the Spatial Anchors and Kinect Azure… all add up to an impressive holistic strategy, that closes the gap between the virtual and physical worlds. It’s become apparent that Microsoft has a crystal clear vision regarding the future of (spatial) computing. They’ve done amazing work in the past couple of years, and I can’t wait for their next tech announcements.

HTC VIVE: HTC impressed me with their overall presence at the MWC. They had a huge booth, showcasing a wide array of products, from the HTC VIVE Pro Eye with a BMW foveated rendering case to VIVE SYNC, their VR collaboration tool that will even get Outlook integration. The highlight of their booth was the HTC 5G Hub that was designed with VR content streaming in mind. An early stage prototype of this approach was presented live: A PC streamed SuperhotVR to a VIVE Focus Plus. But sadly, I didn’t get to test it myself.

Foldable Phones: Whether it be the Samsung Galaxy Fold, or Huawei’s Mate X, both are essentially a good thing in my opinion. Many ridiculed them, but I can’t because there finally is some change of scenery in the smartphone market. To me, phones became plain & boring over the past few years. Surely, screen sizes, cameras, and tech specs are constantly improving. But there are seldom things that really impressed me (aside from maybe the iPhone X’s facial scanning sensors). I’m not saying that I’ll not buy one of these phones, as I like the overall concept and really do hope they’ll inspire the next generation of smartphones out there.

The Fails

There were also a few minor things that bugged me too:

BREEZ: The automated facial recognition at the MWC that should have offered me speedy access into the convention hall. Now, I don’t know if I’ve got a particularly funny face, but this technology rarely works on me at all. Nor, were the cues at the BREEZ counters any shorter than normal ones. Usually, it was just faster to just show your badge and ID to the personnel at the entrance, then using BREEZ. Quite ironic, but that’s new tech for you sometimes!

Low-Level VR: There were quite a few exhibitors (no names here) who presented some rather outdated VR. I don’t really know why that is? But it was quite underwhelming and a bit disappointing. It’s not like VR is the new kid on the block anymore, so not sure why they’d not focus on quality products instead of boring bandwagon cases?

Oculus: Where were you? Sure, prepping your F8 event. Makes sense, and I get that. Still, I would’ve loved to see the Quest in direct contrast to the HTC products at MWC.

Verdict

Long story short: To me MWC2019 was an amazing event, and hopefully I’ll be back in 2020… maybe even staying longer, if my schedule permits? I honestly think I barely scratched the surface of the many things to discover at an event that size. I suspect there were lots of hidden gems I unfortunately missed. Yet I discovered a lot of cool new things that I’m really grateful for having had the opportunity to experience them first hand. If you ever get the chance to attend a conference like this one, I highly recommend you go, as it’ll definitely be worth your while!

What was your MWC highlight? Do you have further questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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MWC: HoloLens 2 — and beyond? was originally published in AR/VR Journey: Augmented & Virtual Reality Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Simon Graff

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