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The new HoloLens is better, but here’s why you’re still not going to buy it

You probably wouldn’t pay $3,500 for an augmented-reality headset that lets you play around with virtual objects in your living room. Your employer might, however, if it could help you do your job.

That’s what Microsoft is betting on as it begins shipping the latest version of its HoloLens headset on Thursday, eight months after the company unveiled the device.

It makes sense: Microsoft still won’t say how many people are using HoloLens, but they’re mostly business customers. This is the case for other companies offering AR headsets, too, as the technology has only really appealed to consumers thus far in smartphone apps for things like gaming and trying on makeup.

Greg Sullivan, director of Microsoft Mixed Reality, told CNN Business the most popular uses of the headset include remote assistance (such as helping a field worker install or repair equipment with help from a faraway expert), visualizing complicated 3-D environments (such as checking out how a life-size virtual model of a new HVAC system would fit into a real-world warehouse), and employee training.

The HoloLens 2 is more comfortable and easier to use than the last version, which could make it more helpful for the tasks companies want to do with it. These changes, along with that $3,500 price tag, indicate that Microsoft is targeting the device to businesses.

The initial version of HoloLens, unveiled in 2015, introduced many people to the idea of a device for seeing three-dimensional images that appear to be placed in the world around them, such as a virtual ball rolling around on a real table. The headset was first rolled out in 2016 for developers, then for enterprise users. But the device felt fairly clunky and experimental: It had a small field of view that could make it hard to see virtual objects in their entirety, thus breaking the illusion of melding the digital and the real, and required a finicky finger gesture to interact with virtual objects.

HoloLens 2, meanwhile, seems more like Microsoft’s first true stab at a commercial AR headset. It has a field of view that’s more than double that of the initial HoloLens, which makes it possible to see virtual objects that are larger (or more of a virtual object when you’re standing close to it). The display is higher-resolution, too, so objects look crisper. Microsoft also redesigned and simplified the ways users interact with virtual objects, making it more realistic as a work tool.

I checked out these changes firsthand in October in a Microsoft office in San Francisco.

The first thing I noticed was that the headset felt more comfortable and balanced on my head — a result of changes such as moving the batteries from the headset’s arms to its rear. As someone who tends to get headaches after wearing AR or virtual-reality headsets for a while, this was a relief.

The ways users interact with digital objects is also better and, at times, impressively futuristic. HoloLens 2 includes eye tracking that lets you do things like scroll down a virtual screen of text hovering in the air in front of you in a more natural, precise way than you could previously. And it has fully articulated hand tracking that keeps tabs on the positions of all your fingers, as well as new gestures like a virtual lasso that can shoot out of your palm to let you grab virtual items.

During some demos, such as one in which I used a finger to paint in midair and used my hands to manipulate my art work, I found this means you don’t need to be so precise about how you’re pointing at and poking things, which may make it easier for someone using the headset for, say, manipulating or annotating 3-D models at work.

“What we have wanted to evolve to is an interaction model that you don’t have to be told how to do it,” Sullivan told me.

This is a far cry from the first version of HoloLens, which didn’t track the wearer’s eyes or fingers; it considered the position of their head to figure out where attention was focused, and required you to perform a precise index-finger gesture that Microsoft referred to as an “air tap” to select virtual objects — essentially, a mid-air mouse click. I thought the gesture didn’t feel natural, and, while I can click a real computer mouse all day, doing so in the air was exhausting.

I was also pleased to notice that virtual objects, such as a hummingbird that followed me as I walked around the room, were bright even as sunlight streamed through the office windows.

Microsoft still has plenty of work ahead of it. While virtual images looked good and appeared stable even as I shook my head around during my demos, an even bigger field of view would make it a lot easier to envision large 3-D objects such as a car (and we know that auto makers are among HoloLens users). The headset is barely lighter than the previous version, weighing in at 1.2 pounds, which means you’re not going to forget it’s on your head.

There’s the price tag, too: While $3,500 is affordable for many companies, it will still keep this kind of tool out of the hands of many others who might otherwise want to try it.

CNN