Everything we know about Magic Leap, the most intriguing tech we've never tried

Virtual objects mixing into your real-world vision, bringing cinematic magic to life all around you. That's the promise of Magic Leap -- but can it really be as groundbreaking as the hype?

A demo of Magic Leap.

Magic Leap/Screenshot by Nick Hide/CNET

3D worlds that open before your eyes when you put goggles on: that's what virtual reality offers, and we've already seen plenty of devices offering that this year and early next. But when those goggles open up and allow you to overlay unreal, virtual 3D objects into your actual field of vision? That's a whole other ballgame, and Magic Leap is promising exactly that.

Magic Leap is a tech startup in "stealth mode." Based in South Florida, it's attracted investments from Google and others, and visionary talent including Richard Taylor, founder of "Avatar" and "Lord of the Rings" special-effects company Weta Workshop, and visionary futurist/novelist Neal Stephenson. All the while, Magic Leap's signature technology has been kept largely under wraps, except for a handful who have been granted access to it without signing a lengthy non-disclosure agreement.

Slowly but surely, however, Magic Leap has been cracking open the door. The latest reveal came earlier this week, during a conversation with Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz at the WSJ.D Live conference.

To be clear: we at CNET have yet to try this technology firsthand, and what little the world knows about Magic Leap's product comes from a handful of early media stories, screenshots and videos that ultimately originate with the company itself. But if Magic Leap can deliver on even a fraction of the potential that it's hinting at, it could be one of those once-a-decade sea change moments in the technology world.

With those caveats in place, here's what we know -- or think we know -- so far.

Mixed reality: 'Holographic' experiences in your real world

You're probably familiar with virtual reality (VR), which projects a completely immersive environment into a head-mounted display. Unlike a passive movie or TV show, a VR environment -- be it a live broadcast of a political debate, a harrowing walk through a Syrian refugee camp or a completely artificial computer-generated shoot-'em-up -- lets you examine the world unhindered, offering you 360-degree freedom of movement.

But both Magic Leap and Microsoft's HoloLens are focusing on something different: "Mixed reality" or "augmented reality" (AR). These head-mounted devices use a passthrough camera to show you...the exact same room or environment you're already in. But then they seamlessly layer in computer-generated objects. Suddenly, a troll is sitting on the chair across the room, or a baby dragon is breaking through the wall.

While the computer-generated elements are sometimes referred to as "holograms," that's a misnomer. In this case, the "Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi" message would only be viewable to the wearer of the device, not everyone in the room.

So, what's it look like? Last year, a video produced with Taylor's New Zealand-based studio Weta Workshop showed people playing a shooting game in an office, but that was more likely an idealized vision of Magic Leap's potential rather than an actual experience.

A new demo (see the video embedded above), which the company claims has been shot directly through the point of view of a Magic Leap device, show a little steampunk robot hiding under a table, and a solar system hovering over an office desk, complete with reflections cast off the real office desk as if it were really there. These seem to be the first "real" Magic Leap videos shown to the public.

Microsoft HoloLens also creates impressive 3D effects in the real world with its head-mounted visor, but its visuals are limited to a narrow field of view in front of your eyes. I've tried HoloLens, and it feels like you're viewing its ghostly magic images through a little window in front of your face. Magic Leap might be aiming for improved field of view that feels real no matter where you move your eyes. Abovitz promises full immersion, calling it "cinematic reality, but for real."

HoloLens promised similar things when Microsoft first revealed it earlier this year, so we'll have to see what the differences will end up being. HoloLens and Magic Leap will probably end up being the prime examples of "mixed reality" technology for the next few years.

A promise of 3D things that interact with the real world, and your eye contact

According to Magic Leap, the graphics you see while using it will look movie-like. It seems as though virtual objects won't overlap with real-world ones, and they'll create virtual interactions with real things (like the virtual reflections off a real table). HoloLens also recognizes things around you, such as walls or tables, or your hands: some games blast virtual holes in walls, too, but demos I've tried so far have been under extremely locked down conditions. Magic Leap claims these mixed-reality things will appear around you in everyday use, and will seem indistinguishable from reality. That's something that no one has achieved, and I'd have to see to believe.

Magic Leap's talking points for what it should feel like are certainly bold: according to Abovitz, over time, the "brain doesn't distinguish between real and magical," and that the realistic experience "becomes more real over time as it sinks into your consciousness."

It works by projecting light on your retina

Magic Leap says that these magical images are projected onto your retina, creating the same types of neurological effects as real life objects perceived around you. This is different than virtual reality, which uses a flat screen in front of your eyes, split in two and magnified to create a wraparound 3D effect.

It's still unclear how HoloLens creates its imagery, and how Magic Leap's visual experience will be different. But HoloLens has a limited field of view. The only technology we've seen that projects light is the Avegant Glyph, a headset that projects a 720p DLP display onto your eyes. We noticed was a much clearer, more vivid image.

Your eyes can move around and focus on things, unlike using VR

You can move your eye and focus on a detail of a virtual image, according to Magic Leap. Will that work the way our eyes do when looking around a room? This could mean being able to focus and hone in on details in a virtual object without moving your head, something that VR doesn't allow for.

Lytro cameras use light fields, and so will Magic Leap. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's based on light field technology

We see things around us by capturing "light fields" in our eyes, or all the light data from the world around us. This allows us to see 3D images and focus on them. Holograms capture this light data in a photograph-like mode. Lytro's cameras use light field technology to take photos and focus on multiple details afterwards. Magic Leap says it's also using light field technology to "reverse engineer" what we see in real life and make it virtual. We're not entirely sure what this would actually mean, or how it would feel...but it sounds like there's a possibility for virtual objects to achieve different levels of focus, just like real ones.

It dreams of being a full computer

Magic Leap boldly promises that the "world is your screen," and that its experience will allow you to do anything you'd normally do on another phone or computer. That early demo video -- the idealized one -- shows someone creating a virtual screen to browse messages in the air.

Magic Leap will focus on gaming, entertainment and communication first with its initial apps and experiences, and then branch off into other areas down the road: possibly business use. Magic Leap calls it "hyperpersonal computing." But the immediate focus seems to be on creating magic, not helping you work: "whimsy and wonder." As a true smartphone or PC alternative, Magic Leap would need some sort of groundbreaking method of input, and the software to make it viable.

It will run its own OS

To enable its low-latency realistic visual effects, Magic Leap says it's building its own operating system, focused on real-time operation. This platform will run its own apps, using a developing platform based on a forthcoming software developer kit that interested developers will be able to access. There won't be a public beta.

Microsoft HoloLens: also a stand-alone device. CNET

The goal is a mobile device, like Microsoft's HoloLens

Small, light and mobile: Magic Leap seems like it won't have any tethers to other computers or phones. Would that make it like HoloLens, Microsoft's mixed-reality headset that we still haven't used in the wild either? Either way, it's meant to be its own self-contained system. Whether it's truly independent or more of a connected peripheral isn't entirely clear, but it sounds more like the former than the latter. Of course, we still don't really know how Microsoft HoloLens works in that regard, either. (The HoloLens developer kit is scheduled to ship in early 2016.)

Google Glass was made to be worn all day, too. Sarah Tew/CNET

Aiming to be worn all day long in public while being social, like Google Glass

According to Magic Leap's Abovitz, the still-unseen gadget that Magic Leap will become will stay on your head, and be something you can use in the real world, even while talking to other people. The last gadget that attempted this was Google Glass . And the goals seem similar: make a device that can be on you but "won't take over your world," and something that can show you what you need to see while still making eye contact with real people. Maybe these will feel more like magic glasses than magic headgear, but no image of Magic Leap's physical hardware has yet been shown.

The challenge is a tall one, both for comfort and for etiquette. Google Glass failed at its social mission. Staying focused on unseen virtual things while talking to a very real friend is social territory that hasn't been mapped.

Promises to make virtual experiences happen more naturally, with less nausea

Some people are nauseated by virtual reality, disoriented by how it tricks your brain into experiencing realistic 3D on a screen. Magic Leap claims its experience will seem more natural, and will result in fewer problems like headaches and feeling sick.

I can't use virtual reality for more than half an hour at a time at most, and maybe that's what Magic Leap is trying to get past to achieve more of a persistent usage. A lot of what Magic Leap's claims seem to focus on natural eye motion and neurology...can it crack some secret way to make smart eyewear feel invisible and normal?

Magic Leap is planning to make millions of these devices

All the component parts are made by Magic Leap at a factory that's already being set up in South Florida, and the target is "millions" of devices. When? We still don't know, but it's an ambitious plan, to say the least.

Known unknowns

We know more about Magic Leap today than we did a week ago, but tons of questions remain: How will this really feel? How much will it cost? When will it be available? Could it completely replace your smartphone? It's a mysterious fog. A fascinating fog. We want to know more. And try it.

Hopefully we'll get a chance to actually try Magic Leap with our own eyes sometime soon. Because, unfortunately, no matter how bold and exciting it all seems on paper, it's the type of tech that's impossible to judge without seeing it firsthand.

I want to believe, but I haven't seen anything yet.

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