HoloLens 2 announced for $3,500, available to preorder now, ships later this year

 

Comfort, better visuals, easier to use with your hands. That’s the takeaway from HoloLens 2, Microsoft’s follow-up to the Space Age goggles it announced four years ago. The technology behind the $3,500 (about £2,700 or AU$4,900) HoloLens 2 device, which Microsoft calls ‘mixed reality,’ overlays computer images on the real world. Imagine arrows directing you down the street as you walk, or repair instructions floating over a machine as you fix it. That’s MR’s promise, Microsoft says.  

The company was the pioneer in augmented reality worlds when the tech giant debuted its first headset, in 2015, charging companies $5,000 apiece for the gadget. Since then rival devices, such as the $2,295 Magic Leap, have come on the scene.

At prices like that, MR headsets are far more expensive than the competing VR technology currently on the market. Facebook’s Oculus Rift, for example, is $349, HTC’s Vive is $499 and Sony’s PlayStation VR is $299. You have to buy a computer or PlayStation 4 console to power these VR devices, but even then their prices are at least half what Microsoft or Magic Leap are asking.

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That hasn’t deterred Microsoft from designing an improved headset as part of its push into the now far busier AR universe. The company says HoloLens still isn’t ready for you and me to use at home though. Instead, Microsoft is focused on companies and the military (though that’s stirred dissent in the Redmond ranks, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has dismissed.)

Aside from that caveat, Microsoft has made some welcome improvements to the device, which goes on preorder Sunday and will be shipping later this year.

‘Computing is embedded in our world, in every place in every way,’ Nadella said while unveiling the device at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. ‘Computing is in everything from connected cars to connected refrigerators, smart surgical tools, and even smart coffee machines.’

He said the result is that the approach to how companies like Microsoft approach the technology they make. ‘It’s no longer about being device first, it’s about putting the human first, and it includes all the devices in their lives.’

‘We don’t have to just imagine it,’ he added. ‘This future is here.’

CNET traveled to Redmond, Washington, to see that future he was talking about abd talk with Microsoft executives and designers, including Technical Fellow Alex Kipman, about HoloLens 2.

In HoloLens 2 isn’t meant for you. But HoloLens 3 might be, we look at where HoloLens fits in the world, and why some techies think mixed reality technology will upend the way we use computers.

‘The goal is these things transform humans,’ said Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s technical fellow who leads the HoloLens project. He describes it as giving people superpowers. ‘This is a concept that’s been in our dreams.’

In HoloLens 2 feels like practical magic, we share what it’s like to use HoloLens 2, its key features and where Microsoft is going next in AR … and why it’s aiming at businesses, and not the average person yet. Take a dive into what we experienced.

We also got to check out Microsoft’s lab devoted to building products that comfortably work for 95 percent of people, regardless of their height or size. This is where Microsoft made the HoloLens 2 fit more comfortably than its predecessor.

In HoloLens 2: why it’s really all about the cloud, ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley explains Microsoft’s newest apps and services.

Here’s what you need to know about what Microsoft is announcing in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress 2019.

At $3,500, it’s still not made for everyday people

Instead, it’s designed primarily for people such as manufacturing workers, industrial designers and those in the military, and for situations where field workers might need to work hands-free. But Microsoft said its $3,500 headset will eventually be ready for us to buy. Someday.

It’s arriving in 2019, but it’s still not clear when

Microsoft hasn’t set a definite release date, but the HoloLens 2 can be preordered now, if you’re interested.

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HoloLens 2 tracks your eyes

Microsoft included sensors near the nose ridge of HoloLens 2, pointed at your eyes. The technology is used to log you in to the device, saving your individual settings in case you share the headset with a coworker or friend.

Microsoft will also let app developers have access to eye tracking. In one demo, the company showed how a teleprompter could follow as you read. There’s also onboard iris recognition, which works with Windows Hello to log in to HoloLens 2.

It also tracks your hands better

The Magic Leap One, and most VR headsets, come with dedicated controllers. The HoloLens 2 doesn’t; it relies on hand and voice controls via Cortana. The first HoloLens recognized basic tap and click gestures, but the new headset recognizes 21 points of articulation per hand and allows for more realistic hand motions. Technically, that’s the most advanced hand tracking on any AR headset we’ve tried.

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Field of view doubled

There’s a lot to like about the changes Microsoft made with HoloLens 2, but perhaps the most dramatic improvement is to the ‘field of view,’ or how much hologram you can see at any given time.

The field of view on the first HoloLens was about the size of a deck of cards a few feet from your face. It was annoyingly tiny. The HoloLens 2 more than doubles that area, to 52 degrees. Practically speaking, it’s still not as wide as most VR headsets, but it’s better than Magic Leap One.

Glasses accepted

Unlike many AR headsets and smartglasses (including Magic Leap One), the HoloLens 2 is designed with glasses in mind. The new flip-up visor makes it even easier to slip on, and our demos worked for several team members with glasses.

That’s an advantage over Magic Leap, which doesn’t work with glasses at all and requires a limited range of prescription lenses. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health said 14 million people in the country need vision correction of some kind. So, yeah, this matters.

New apps from Microsoft and partners

Microsoft is also announcing new HoloLens apps that it thinks most companies will benefit from. One is called Dynamic 365 Guides, which lets companies put together guided instructions in mixed reality. In one demo, Microsoft had us gather parts for and fix a broken ATV, using only the instructions provided by the app.

Another app, called Dynamic 365 Layout, creates a persistent map of the buildings you’re in, and stores them with Microsoft. This allows developers to place a hologram on a table in a room, for example, and if you leave that room and come back a day later or with a different HoloLens headset, you’ll still find it there.

Microsoft’s newest headset works with new cloud apps, but it doesn’t have a cellular connection device. Instead, it connects via Wi-Fi.

Other software and enterprise partners include Spatial, a company developing internet-based office video chat and collaboration software that makes you feel like the people you’re connected with are right there in the room with you.

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Open system

There’s a debate in the tech industry about how computers and phones should work. Should they be ‘open,’ like Microsoft Windows and phones powered by Google’s Android software? Or should they be ‘closed’ and tightly managed, like Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPad, promising potentially better security?

Microsoft said it’s coming down squarely on the ‘open’ side with HoloLens 2. That device, Microsoft said, will allow anyone to create an app store for HoloLens 2. It will also allow app developers like Mozilla to bring its Firefox browser to HoloLens 2 as well. And even developers like Epic Games can make coding tools for HoloLens, Microsoft said. 

‘Epic will fully support Microsoft’s HoloLens strategy now and for the long term,’ Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said.

‘I have great hopes and dreams will accomplish together in this ecosystem,’ Kipman said.

Battery life? About 3 hours

Microsoft confidently says it doesn’t expect people will burn through an entire battery charge of HoloLens 2 in a single sitting. But in case you might, the device lasts about 3 hours, according to the company. That’s similar to Magic Leap and might be better than Facebook’s Oculus Go mobile headset, which lasts about 2 hours on a charge.

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HoloLens 3 is coming in a couple of years

Microsoft said it plans to announce its follow-up to HoloLens 2 in the next year or two. The company didn’t provide any details, other than to say the device will be even more comfortable and easier to use, and that it’ll do more than the HoloLens 2.

Kipman said a prototype of the device was what helped Microsoft win a lucrative $480 million contract with the US Army.

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Microsoft is also bringing the Kinect back, as an IoT device

The Azure Kinect development kit is a small, self-contained set of cameras and microphones designed to work with a PC or directly to the cloud via Microsoft Azure. The $399 dev kit is also available to preorder Sunday, and was first announced at last year’s Microsoft Build conference.

Specs

Here’re the speeds and feeds.

  • CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 Compute Platform and second generation custom-built Holographic Processing Unit.
  • Display: Equivalent of a 2k display for each eye, creating 47 pixels per degree — what Microsoft says is often called a ‘retina’ display — with a 52-degree field of view. (The original HoloLens had the equivalent of a 720 display for each eye, at a 30-degree field of view.)
  • Audio input: 5-channel microphone array.
  • Audio output: Built-in ‘spatial audio.’
  • Connectivity: USB Type-C, 802.11ac 2×2, no cellular connectivity.
  • Weight: 566 grams or 1.25 pounds. (The original HoloLens weighed 579 grams, or 1.28 pounds.)
  • Battery life: About 3 hours.

Spotify for Wear OS lets you play music from your wrist

Now you can control your Spotify music from your wrist.

Spotify on Wednesday announced its new app for Wear OS smartwatches. The app lets you pick a song or playlist, and pause, play or skip tracks on your smartwatch. That way you won’t have to pull out your phone in the middle of a jog if a song you don’t like comes on.

Spotify also partnered with the Fossil Group to preinstall the Spotify app on all Fossil Gen 4 and Michael Kors Access Runway smartwatches.

 

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The music-streaming service has previously appeared on Samsung and Garmin smartwatches, but with this new app Spotify will be more broadly available on smartwatches that run Google’s Wear OS software.

Spotify is still not available on the Apple Watch, but that may change now that Apple’s WatchOS 5 allows offline playback from third-party music apps.

Oculus Quest will give life to an emotionally intelligent pink alien fuzzball

 

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Last week, I befriended a fuzzy pink alien that my robot sidekick and I nicknamed Pork Bun. We played fetch around a bonfire and munched on virtual marshmallows. Pork Bun was so charming that, when I had to choose between protecting Pork Bun or saving the human race from extinction, I tacitly left planet Earth to fend for itself to face its certain doom. 

I met Pork Bun last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, during the premiere of an animated virtual-reality experience called Bonfire, from Pixar-like immersive-animation studio Baobab. But you’ll be able visit Pork Bun’s planet via an Oculus Quest, because Bonfire has been chosen as a launch title for Facebook-owned Oculus’ Quest headset when the gadget arrives later this spring, Facebook revealed on Monday

The Oculus Quest headset is aiming to bridge the gap between mobile and PC VR, bringing a higher-end experience — with more-advanced controllers and the ability to walk around in an environment — to a fully wireless headset.

Baobab, meanwhile, has spent the last four years trying to bridge the gap between passive animated films and the kind of impact you feel from real-life experiences, bringing high-end animation to immersive formats like virtual reality. 

‘Everything that we’ve done has centered around making the viewer matter, not just be a fly on the wall,’ Eric Darnell, Baobab’s chief creative officer, said in an interview. ‘Because of the [artificial intelligence of Bonfire], we give the viewer a lot of different options. You can throw a flaming log at Pork Bun or you can toss it a marshmallow.’

In Bonfire, you play an interstellar exploration trainee sent to find a new home for the human race. You crash-land on a mysterious planet, with a robotic assistant named Debbie — voiced by comedian Ali Wong — and a bonfire as your main ways of understanding this new environment. As you peer into the darkness beyond the reach of the firelight, out pops Pork Bun, a pink-and-orange alien who looks like a furry jellyfish and likes to play fetch and Hacky Sack. 

Pork Bun is suspicious of you at first, but as you decide how to interact with the creature, your choices feed into a complex system that changes how friendly Pork Bun is to you. 

Baobab’s artificial intelligence ‘determines the level of trust and bonding on display,’ said Baobab CEO Maureen Fan.

For Bonfire to be able to process that degree of complexity in a wireless headset like Quest, Baobab needed to figure out sly methods for keeping its experience computationally lean and mean. That included classic computer animation hygiene tricks, like designing characters who don’t need a lot of different polygons to appear three dimensional. ‘Sometimes, it’s clever ways to turn stuff off,’ Darnell said. ‘If you’re not looking behind you, we don’t need to pull all of that geometry.’

Artificial intelligence, as a term, can be fuzzy and mean different things depending on how strictly you define it. Bonfire’s AI, for example, doesn’t autonomously learn and evolve. There’s no machine learning, for example, that allows the experience to learn for itself based on inputs of data, without being explicitly programmed. Whatever happens in your run-through of the experience doesn’t affect the next person who tries it. 

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(That also means Bonfire isn’t susceptible to trolling that could, say, turn characters racist, like what happened with Microsoft’s Tay on Twitter. ‘You couldn’t convince Pork Bun to kill Debbie,’ Darnell said.)

The AI in Bonfire leans toward a more colloquial definition of artificial intelligence: technology that mimics what we as humans consider to be traits of another human mind — problem solving or emotional resonance, for example. 

‘At its simplest level, if a character can find you in the environment and look you in the eye, that’s a form of AI,’ Darnell said. ‘You can add layers of complexity to that so there’s a lot of things competing for that character’s attention. It [the character] basically has to decide what matters.’

Baobab’s Bonfire will available on Oculus Quest when the headset launches May 21, as well as on other VR platforms. It’s also on display in New York at the Tribeca Film Fest‘s Virtual Arcade through Sunday. 

Apple Black Friday 2018 deals: Everything we know right now

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Apple doesn’t really ‘do’ Black Friday, at least not the way other stores do. There’s no weeks-ahead leaked ad, and historically not much in the way of Black Friday discounts.

In 2016 and 2017, in fact, Apple offered only gift cards with various purchases. There was a $25 gift card when you bought an Apple Watch Series 1, for example, and a $100 gift card with select iPads.

Will this year be different? We’ll find out on Friday, Nov. 23, which kicks off Apple’s four-day shopping event. As always, Apple is keeping mum about the specifics. It might be gift cards again, or perhaps Apple will try to jump-start declining iPhone sales with some actual discounts.

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Right now, Apple has set some deals live on its Australia store and it looks like our suspicions were correct: it’s all gift cards. It appears Apple is offering the following amounts for each purchase. Note that all of this is pure conjecture based on the Australian models available and the gift card amounts listed on that site. When the sale goes live tonight in the US, we will update this post.  

Either way, you might be able to do better at one of Apple’s retail partners. Here are all the Black Friday deals on Apple products we’re tracking now:

Oh, and don’t forget: All year round, you can score savings on Apple gear by opting for refurbs. The Apple Watch Series 3 GPS 38mm, for example? It’s currently $239 refurbished, a savings of $40.

Apple Watch Series 4 reportedly had some trouble with daylight saving time

Apple’s latest Watch had some trouble Sunday with daylight saving time in Australia, reports say.

Owners of the Apple Watch Series 4 posted on Reddit about their Watches getting stuck in reboot loops — leaving them unable to charge up or restart the devices — due to the country entering daylight saving time and losing an hour.

The problems ended when Monday rolled around and the devices entered a normal 24-hour day, 9to5Mac reported.

Apple didn’t immediately respond a request for comment.

Users who encountered the problem suspect it was tied to the Activity ‘complication‘ — Apple’s term for information shown on the watch face — when using the Infograph Modular face option. That draws a timeline graph of the current day based on hour by hour data. Users reckon the 23-hour day Sunday caused the Watch to crash and reboot.

Some figured out a workaround that involved removing the Infograph Modular face using the Watch’s companion app on iPhone, and noted that they could use it as normal on Monday.

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It seems likely that Apple will need to patch this issue before daylight saving time ends in Europe on Sunday, Oct. 28 and in the US on Sunday, Nov. 4. Those regions end daylight savings time around the time Australia’s begins it because their seasons are opposite. 

Millions of Europeans voted over the summer to end the biannual time changes, saying they favored keeping the time used in summer for the whole year.

 

Apple Watch Series 4: I hiked for 6 hours straight so you wouldn’t have to

Apple Watch Series 4 showing heart rate.

If you’re looking to buy an Apple Watch Series 4, chances are you’ve already heard about its new EKG feature and fall detection, but hopefully you won’t have to use those two features on a daily basis. What you may use regularly are its fitness features.

The Apple Watch Series 4 has added better training tools for athletes, automatic workout detection and competitions to motivate you to close those activity rings. 

But these are mostly software features you can get on its cheaper predecessors (Series 1 and up) with the WatchOS 5 update. The cheapest 40mm Series 4 model with the aluminum frame and no LTE starts at $400, $120 more than the Series 3. (For international pricing, see our Apple Watch Series 4 review.)

After testing out the Apple Watch Series 4 alongside the Series 3 for about three weeks now, I’ve noticed two major advantages over its predecessors when it comes to working out: screen size and battery life.

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Bigger, bolder, better

The first thing I noticed when I took the Apple Watch Series 4 for a run was how much easier it was to read the numbers. It’s one of those things you never notice until it’s improved upon, and all of a sudden I found it easier to track my heart rate and check my pace and distance, without having to squint at the screen and risk a stumble.

The Series 4 has undergone a complete redesign from the previous Apple Watch models. The screen has increased from 38mm to 40mm (for the smaller version) and 42mm to 44mm (for the larger). Plus the bezels are slimmer, so you’re getting a lot more usable screen space on your wrist despite the body of the watch not being that much bigger. This means all your data (including activity stats) appears bigger and bolder on the Series 4, which makes a difference when you’re in motion.

The Apple Watch Series 4 also has a slightly slimmer body than its predecessor, and I found the little sensor belly on the underside feels more comfortable when it’s strapped on tight around my wrist.

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Battery life

But where the Apple Watch Series 4 really pulls ahead is in battery life. Apple claims it can last up to 6 hours of continuous outdoor activity tracking, compared with the roughly 4 hours you’d get on the Series 3. It’s still much less than other specialized trackers on the market, such as those from Garmin and Polar, but it’s a big boost for distance athletes considering an Apple Watch.

During the first week of testing, I didn’t notice much of a difference in battery life between the Apple Watch 4 and 3. I’d finish the day with about 40 percent battery life left on the Watch 4 after a normal day of use and maybe an hour’s worth of activity tracking thrown in there. Bottom line: I still had to charge it on a daily basis, so I was skeptical about the 6-hour claim.

To test it out, I took both the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 3 on a 6-hour hike up Mount Tamalpais, about an hour from San Francisco.

Both watches were at 100 percent when I got out of the car at the trailhead parking lot near Stinson Beach, California. Before I began, I put both on airplane mode at full brightness, with the Series 4 on my left wrist and the Series 3 on my right, and started a hiking session.  

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The hike up from Stinson Beach to the top of the mountain is pretty steep. You start out among the redwoods, traverse up a stream with a few waterfalls along the way and there’s even a point where you have to climb up a ladder to continue. So while my pace may not have been very fast, I was continuously using the GPS, altimeter and heart rate.

At the hour mark I paused to check the battery levels and take a few shots of the screens: The Series 3 was at 75 percent and the Series 4 was at 87 percent.

Three hours in, I reached the summit and chomped on a sandwich as I walked (stopping was not an option for my test). The Series 3 was at 25 percent while the Series 4 was going strong at 65 percent. At that point I began to worry that I’d have to stay on the mountain past sunset.

I knew the way down would be faster, so I went on a few other trails at the top to kill some time before I started my descent. Exactly 4 hours in, I got a low-battery alert on the Series 3. I dismissed it and continued, and then saw all my progress disappear from the screen as the older Watch switched to Power Reserve. Meanwhile the Series 4 was still going strong with about 45 percent battery.

At that point it had already won, but I pressed on to see how long it would last.

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Six hours and 20 minutes, 12.75 miles and 2,570 feet of elevation later, I finally decided to call it a day and stop the hike. I still had about 5 percent battery left on the Apple Watch Series 4. After turning off activity tracking, I had enough power to get me back to the car and drive an hour back home before it went into Power Reserve.

Needless to say, Apple delivered on the 6-hour activity claim, and then some. Sure I didn’t have cell signal turned on and I wasn’t playing music, but it was at max brightness and it definitely out-hiked the Series 3 by at least 2 full hours. This means the Series 4 can probably get you through a full marathon.

And while the battery boost is mostly for activity tracking, it may be worth the upgrade for athletes.

But if you’re not planning on signing up for any marathons or 6-hour hikes, many of the fitness upgrades are still available on older models.

WatchOS 5 makes the Apple Watch a better workout buddy

With the update to WatchOS 5, the Apple Watch can now detect when you’re working out, regardless of whether or not you remembered to give it a heads-up. Within a few minutes of starting you’ll get an alert and vibration prompting you to begin tracking and it will continue to nudge you until you accept or dismiss. If you accept halfway through your session, you’ll get retroactive credit for anything you did up until you got the alert.

And it knows what kind of activity you’re doing. I didn’t try all of these, but it can theoretically distinguish between running (indoor or outdoor), walking (indoor or outdoor), swimming (open or pool), elliptical and rowing machine, though there’s no cycling yet. It also knows when you’ve finished a workout, and reminds you to end your session with a nudge and a notification regardless of what kind of exercise you’re doing. 

This is a feature that Fitbit devices have had for a while now, but it’s nice to finally get it on the Apple Watch.

My only complaint was that it kept wanting to record my walk to work as a run. The first couple of times I gave it a pass, because I was legitimately running, but I figured after a week of dismissing it at the same time it would figure out that I wasn’t really running, just walking fast and sprinting between stoplights.

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Yoga tracking

As well as hiking, WatchOS 5 added yoga to the roster of activities you can select on the Watch. Granted you could always track under the Others category and then label accordingly in the Activity app, but having a designated category means the tracking algorithm is customized for that specific sport. 

Activities tracked in the Others category are tracked similarly to a brisk walk and I noticed it now records more calories burned during hikes (not just the 6-hour ones).

Training tools for runners

If you’re a runner like me, you’re also getting a new set of tools to help you reach your personal record. You can now keep track of cadence (steps per minute) and rolling mile pace (how fast you ran the previous mile) while you’re out pounding the pavement. My favorite feature is the pace alert, which makes the watch vibrate when you dip below or go above your target pace. It’s definitely kept me from slacking off on my usual 4-mile running route and I can really see it being beneficial for races.

You can also race against your friends. WatchOS 5 adds competitive streaks to the Sharing tab on the Activity app by allowing you to challenge your friends to a seven-day ring-closing competition.

You get one point for every percent of the ring you complete. The winner gets an award that’s unique to your competition.

Let’s be honest, if you share your activity with your friends, you were probably already getting a little competitive about it. I know I was. This is just a way for Apple to make it official and raise the stakes. It’s definitely motivated me to step up my game and close my move rings more often than before, but I also get borderline obsessive about winning that virtual medal during those seven days.

The verdict

Like its predecessors, the Apple Watch Series 4 is a worthy fitness companion for all levels. The longer battery and better screen are great incentives for distance runners who were waiting to make the plunge to an Apple Watch or just looking to upgrade from an older model. But 6 hours of tracking is still miles behind other dedicated fitness watches that can go for days on a charge.

The biggest selling point of the Apple Watch is that it does so much more than just fitness. The added cell connectivity means you can comfortably leave your phone behind on a run and still have all the essentials: music, messages, calls or car service.

And with the Series 4 you have new health features like the EKG, irregular heart rate notifications and fall detection. Be sure to check out our review (in progress right now) before making a final decision.