Inside the Design of Microsoft's Hololens 2
Carl Ledbetter simply can’t help himself. The cheery director of design at Microsoft, who leads the design of the company’s Xbox game consoles and Hololens mixed reality headsets, is in a particularly good mood today. With a belly full of pumpkin pancakes on a crisp fall day and a grande Starbucks at the ready, he’s sharing, for the first time, how the company built its newest product: the Hololens 2. He’s also sharing, at last, that it’s actually shipping. Announced in early 2019, nearly a year ago, the first Hololens 2 orders will be delivered today for $3,500. He’s not supposed to be telling me everything, not yet. I still have four more interviews set up with members of the Hololens team, and big companies like Microsoft carefully plan these narratives for members of the media such as myself, sharing a drip of details that culminates to a grand reveal. [Photo: Microsoft] Ledbetter, I suspect, is meant to show me some early prototypes, plant some themes in my brain, tease the difficulty of the design process, and then let the rest of the team deliver the M. Night Shyamalan twists and turns in product development. But Ledbetter is acting like someone who is so excited about the movie he just watched that he can’t help but give away all the spoilers. [Photo: Microsoft] In a rapid-fire conversation, we start talking about, well, everything. Did I notice the empty cylinders on the visor? Those are little chimneys for heat dissipation. How about that nondescript rubbery material on the back? A difficult-to-source textured polymer that won’t yank your hair when you remove the device. How about the fit system, which is just a little knob I turn on the back of the headset? It required the engineering team to cut a circle out of a circuit board! Nobody does that! What about that padding around your eyes? See how perfect the diamond-patterned thatching lines up? Check out any speaker at a high-end audio store and see if they can do the same! Did I know the visor was actually carbon fiber—no, no, of course it doesn’t feel like carbon fiber, because it’s coated with a polymer to make it nicer to touch—but it has to be carbon fiber because carbon fiber doesn’t warp or weaken under heat, which could otherwise throw the headset’s laser and mirror optic system just a picometer out of alignment and make you puke into a hologram. (A picometer is a trillionth of a meter, a measurement at a scale several orders of magnitude smaller than a virus.) And the plastic case that wraps around and protects the laser lenses? That’s called the boat! The boat! [Photo: Microsoft] I’m captivated, because I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a seamless combination of hard and soft parts in a piece of electronic hardware, let alone the dozen different materials I can quickly make out with my eye. None of these individual details matter on their own, of course. It’s the experience that they all add up to. 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. How? That’s the twist. Building “instinctual interaction” The first Hololens launched in 2016. For Microsoft, it was a top secret project that, somehow, actually stayed secret until launch. The device was Microsoft’s take on augmented reality, floating holograms in the real world. It was, on one hand, amazing. No one had ever shipped such a device before. On the other, it was awkward in just…
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