Introducing Azure’s augmented reality: spatial anchors


Microsoft is back in the augmented-reality game, with the launch of both its HoloLens 2 headset and its Azure Kinect camera. Lighter and more powerful than its predecessor, HoloLens 2 is not only a standalone device but can be linked to a set of Azure services that take mixed reality (Microsoft’s term for augmented reality, or AR), into the public cloud.

Azure’s first tranche of services are intended for use with any platform, going well beyond Microsoft’s own tools. Even with a $1,500 price reduction over the original HoloLens, at $3,500 HoloLens 2 isn’t going to be a device that you hand out to every maintenance worker or to everyone taking a training class. With AR-ready devices in pockets and virtual-reality (VR) capabilities on desks, all your users can be part of an experience without the cost of headsets.

Using a mix of AR and VR devices makes a lot of sense. At last year’s finals for Microsoft’s student development competition, one of the more interesting projects was . Users had a full VR experience, exploring a burning building and using different firefighting tools. Meanwhile, a trainer used a HoloLens to monitor their progress through the simulation, with a view of the VR model displayed on a table.

That mix of technologies is at the heart of Azure’s new tools. Instead of holding everything that’s need to build an environment in a standalone device like HoloLens or a VR-ready PC, the public cloud holds both your models and a way of fixing those models to a specific physical location. Once that data is in Azure, you can access it with Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, as well as Microsoft’s own tools.

At the heart of the new platform are links that tie together the physical and the virtual. Microsoft calls these links . They’re maps that lock virtual objects to the physical space that hosts the environment. They provide a link that can be used to show the live state of a model across multiple devices. Models can be linked to other sources of data, providing a display surface for internet of things or other systems. There’s an option of adding an additional layer of security by tying role-based access controls to a map so that specific capabilities are linked to specific users.

Building spatial anchors

Spatial anchors are deliberately cross-platform, with key dependencies and libraries for client devices available through services like CocoaPods, and with sample code in native languages like Swift. You need to register the appropriate accounts in Azure too, so that code can authenticate against the spatial-anchor services. Microsoft is continuing to use Unity for its tools, though a recent announcement indicates that support for EA’s Unreal will come soon.

and large-scale cloud hosted compute, it offers a series of NV-class VMs intended for use as rendering hosts and for cloud-based visualization apps.

Azure Remote Rendering is currently in a private beta, and pricing has not been set. The likely product offering is a service based on NV-series hardware, using common file formats and a general-purpose rendering tool. By taking that capability and using it with HoloLens and other devices, you could offload compute and power-intensive work from portable devices, while still being able to deliver high-fidelity images.