Microsoft is pushing its Windows Mixed Reality platform, which has so far been limited to virtual reality and HoloLens headsets, onto mobile phones. The company is launching an Android-based version of its HoloLens remote assistance app this spring, as well as an iOS-only tool for previewing products. Unlike lots of phone-based augmented reality, neither tool is aimed at consumers. And there’s no sign that Microsoft is backing away from its HoloLens headset. But this move signals that less futuristic mobile AR is increasingly important to the company.
In April, Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 Remote Assist tool will become available on Android phones as a preview feature. The troubleshooting app’s original HoloLens version lets wearers share what they’re seeing via the headset’s built-in camera, then lets the recipient annotate the image with mixed reality overlays. With the Android-based version, users will hold up a phone instead.
The experiences won’t be interchangeable. The HoloLens version is still best for people who need both hands free to work, especially since it lets you pin diagrams or other windows in mid-air to look at them. And you can already simply record a video with your phone for troubleshooting.
But Remote Assist on Android is supposed to make the communication process easier, using cheap devices that companies already own, as opposed to (or in addition to) a $3,000 HoloLens. And it includes the same kind of communication and annotation features as its HoloLens counterpart. “It’s different than just turning the camera around or turning the phone around, because the person on the other side, they’re seeing the problem and they can annotate into the real world,” says Microsoft’s mixed reality business head Lorraine Bardeen.
The iOS app, dubbed Product Visualize, is a new tool. It’s designed for people who sell complex products like vehicles or heavy machinery, letting them show off scaled-down or full-sized models in augmented reality. (You can already view models in lots of apps, but here, the ability is integrated into Microsoft’s larger suite of sales and collaboration tools.) Bardeen says this feature will come to HoloLens later, but that most sellers are already working with iOS devices, so it made more sense to start there.
Bardeen says one of Microsoft’s current philosophies for mixed reality is “what is the device that makes the most sense for the most customers right now?” At the moment, that’s often a phone. And since Apple and Google are already integrating augmented reality toolkits into iOS and Android, Microsoft can build on those efforts. “Any products that we make available for HoloLens, of course we’ll evaluate how much value is there for our customers in bringing those to mobile as well,” she says. Other HoloLens-only tools might come to mobile platforms in the future, like the Layout holographic floor plan app.
Today’s app announcement is coming just before an event at which Microsoft is supposed to announce a second-generation HoloLens. The new device is rumored to be lighter and more comfortable than its predecessor, with a wider field of view. Like the first version, it’s also expected to be aimed at professional use. Microsoft has released some entertainment apps for the HoloLens, like the first-person shooter RoboRaid. But for now, it’s bringing mixed reality primarily to businesses and research institutions — even if it’s expanding the number of platforms they can use.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly referred to Product Visualize as “Project Visualize.”