Magic Leap isn’t a household name, but the company has made waves in Silicon Valley, creating buzz with promises of a major step forward for augmented reality. Its website promises to add “another dimension to computing” and “change how we experience the world.” In interviews and sneak peaks, the company gives the impression it thinks all previous attempts at VR and AR tech are a bit silly in comparison to what it’s built.
So, what is the Magic Leap One? What might make it different from other, previous headsets? And should you believe the hype? Here’s everything we know.
Enter the Lightfield
Magic Leap One is built around a key technology called “Digital Lightfield.” The company is extremely secretive about the details, but it hasn’t been afraid to talk about the benefits. Rony Abovitz, founder of Magic Leap, told Rolling Stone that the Light Field is “[…] the photon wavefront and particle light field everywhere in the universe. It’s like this gigantic ocean; it’s everywhere. It’s an infinite signal and it contains a massive amount of information.”
That sounds… a bit complex. And it is. But Magic Leap believes our brains doesn’t need all the data. Instead, it can serve up only a limited selection of visuals, and rely on our brains to work through the rest.
The company hasn’t gone into specifics about how its approach works, but similar ideas are not unheard of. Nearly all the players in the VR space have plans to implement foveated rendering, a technique that lowers the detail of areas you’re not looking towards. It works because the detail of our peripheral vision is much lower — yet, because of how our brains work, we don’t actively notice it.
We’d like to say more, but we can’t for now, because we don’t know. Even the handful of journalists who’ve handled the prototype weren’t told specifics about how it works. All we know is that it projects a “light field” before your eyes. Magic Leap claims it won’t tire you and looks more convincing that existing competitors, but that remains to be seen.
Grab the goggles
While we don’t know much about the core lightfield technology, we do know a bit about the headset, which was revealed on December 20, 2017.
Its design is a sci-fi take on steampunk goggles. Though much smaller than an Oculus Rift or even the Microsoft HoloLens, the Magic Leap One is much larger than a pair of sunglasses, and multiple sensors are visible on the exterior. These appear to be the cameras and light sensors that image the world in front of you so AR experiences can be layered over it.
The Magic Leap latches on your head with just a single loop. There’s no straps or Velcro involved. It looks nice, and we presume it’ll work like the Acer Mixed Reality headset and the Microsoft HoloLens, both of which use a rotating tensor to tighten until they’re secure. It’s a comfortable and lightweight approach, but we imagine it’ll work better for some people than others, and it likely won’t feel as secure as an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Wires are also evident on the goggles. While just one is fully visible in the first photos, it appears two are attached to the back of the headset. Only one wire is shown connecting to the “lightpack” that powers the Magic Leap One, so the purpose of the dual cords is unclear.
While the goggles themselves are round, the render appears to show rectangular hardware behind them. That suggests the rounded design is exactly that, and the internal hardware might look like the HoloLens. We also know from the Rolling Stone report that Magic Leap One has the same field-of-view issues found on HoloLens, which makes us wonder how Magic Leap’s approach differs from Microsoft.
Lightpack and controller
While the headset is the start of Magic Leap One, the Lightpack used to power it is also interesting. Unlike most VR and AR headsets, Magic Leap doesn’t look to a smartphone or PC do the heavy lifting. The processing is handled by the company’s tiny Lightpack. Though it is wired to the headset, the pack is small enough to wear. Renderings show it clipped to a pocket, and it looks just barely too large to fit in the palm of your hand.
This is a bold approach. It gives Magic Leap complete control, but also isolates the headset from its competitors. The headset will only work with AR experiences that are designed specifically for it – or, perhaps, ported over from another platform. We assume this means you will purchase only from the company’s own storefront, and run them only in the company’s own environment.
While we know what the Lightpack looks like, we know nothing else. That includes processor capability, connectors, battery life, and weight. It looks attractive, but it’s impossible to say how it will work in practice.
We also don’t know much about the controller. Magic Leap hasn’t said much of it, and renders show nothing but a single, wand-like device with a touchpad and a single button. It’s disappointing, really. We’ve see controllers like this before, and we already know they don’t work well. Perhaps Magic Leap will be used primarily without a controller – but if not, the controller could become a serious issue.
It’s not the next Google Glass
While the Magic Leap One looks cool, a lot of people have mentioned they “wouldn’t want to be seen” in them.
It’s true that they’re not the most practical fashion statement — but you’re not supposed to walk around town in them, anyway. While Magic Leap hasn’t explicitly said you can’t take them on a hike, every demo, tidbit, and leak has involved AR experiences that take place inside, in a single area.
That’s not a surprise when you consider the headset an the hardware it’s connected to. Unless Magic Leap has also worked magic in the world of battery tech, it’s certain the device won’t last more than a few hours on a charge.
The display technology also likely has its limits. Magic Leap says it works by projecting light in some fashion, and every projector fights against outside light sources. In a very bright environment, like a park on sunny day, a projected image can become almost impossible to see — even on the world’s most powerful projection equipment. HoloLens developers have already struggled with this problem.
In short — this isn’t Google Glass. Magic Leap One doesn’t seem meant for use outside your home or office, so its style is less of an issue.
Price and availability
What, you were expecting a price? Sorry. No dice.
The Magic Leap One isn’t up for pre-order, either. It’s promised to ship sometime in 2018, and it’s fair to guess it won’t be in January. You can sign up for a notification if you want to know the instant pre-orders become available.
We’re not going to speculate an exact price, but we think it’ll be more than you hope. The HoloLens is still $3,000 for the Development Edition, and ODG’s R-7 Smartglasses will set you back $2,475. We doubt Magic Leap will be that expensive — but we’d be impressed if it matched the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
For now, we can only wait. Envisioning the Magic Leap still requires a leap of imagination and that will continue until the company is kind enough to offer details.
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