It looks like a cross between Maz Kanata's goggles or evolved into steampunk gear. But Magic Leap, a company that's stayed in secrecy for years, finally has hardware to show off, and it looks like in 2018.
The Magic Leap One is an augmented-reality headset, using light field display. And while I haven't tried it yet, Brian Crecente at Rolling Stone has. Based on his exclusive hands-on experience -- and the several other AR headsets and mixed-reality technologies I've tried in the past year -- we can put Magic Leap's surprise announcement in perspective, and talk about how it shakes up the emerging AR/VR landscape as we head into CES and 2018.
The Magic Leap One is a headset, a controller and a computer
The round-lensed goggles house the displays, audio and external camera sensors. A handheld controller with touchpad looks like an advanced version of the wands that come with theand phone-based VR headsets. The system connects to a round computer that clips to your body and makes everything work.
It's self-contained and doesn't need to be tethered to a phone or PC. But we don't know a specific price or release date yet. There's a pair of glasses (called Lightwear), a belt pack (called Lightpack) and a controller.
There are a lot of cameras in the headset
Much like other mixed-reality and AR headsets, including the, the Magic Leap One has cameras that help track movement and map space. There are a number of cameras across the sides and bridge of the goggles, but Magic Leap hasn't mentioned much about how the tech works. The head-mounted sensors and cameras are self-contained, and there are no separate room sensors needed, as with VR systems like Vive and Oculus. In that sense, it's got something in common with Microsoft's HoloLens proposition.
How is this different from the Microsoft HoloLens?
It sounds like the Magic Leap is a more advanced method of displaying 3D images using light field technology, and it has its own specialized controller with haptics, unlike the HoloLens. The field of view, according to Brian Crecente, who tried it, is larger than the HoloLens... but still limited.
The most impressive trick the Magic Leap One can do seems to be how it handles scanning room environments and layering in holographic objects: Virtual things can now block real things, like they would in the real world. A demo Crescente saw involved a robot that was able to stand in front of someone else realistically. By comparison, if a person walks "behind" a virtual object in Apple's ARKit, they appear in front of it from the viewer's perspective, ruining the illusion.
The Magic Leap One also promises persistence of objects, mapping and remembering environments. Simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM), which builds a map of your environment and remembers it, has already been in use in other AR tech. Is Magic Leap's better?
What is a light field display?
The Magic Leap One is augmented (or, mixed) reality, and projects 3D holographic experiences into the real world. But it promises to do that with light field technology, which projects what's effectively a full 3D image onto your retinas that can be focused on in the same way that real objects can. According to Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz, who answered some questions in a phone interview with CNET, "We've taken a very complicated problem and reduced it to a wafer," promising "low cost and high volume and reproducibility" of the chips involved.
I haven't tried the Magic Leap (yet), but I have tried another light field mixed-reality headset prototype from Avegant earlier this year. That demo wowed me. I was standing in a room, looking at a solar system projected in front of me, and I could focus on planets close to my eyes or on planets far off in the distance. A tank full of virtual fish let me walk up and examine a fish up close, and focus on the scales. It feels more natural than the flat focus you'd experience in something like the Microsoft HoloLens. Abovitz discusses a blend of analog and digital that can be perceived by our retinas, making the illusion work: "your retina is like a mixing board."
It's meant 'for creators'
The first version of the Magic Leap One that should arrive in 2018 is aimed at creators, mainly, said Abovitz. It's not just a development kit for just development types: sure, Abovitz says it's for game and app developers, but he says it's also for people like artists, sculptors and engineers.
Early demos are clearly aimed at the melting point between creativity and technology: a recent demo with Pitchfork showcases "music spirits" created by Icelandic music group Sigur Ros.
It could work with phones, or with phone content
Abovitz recognizes that a lot of people will want to work with 3D things made on their phones. The Magic Leap One sounds like a tool to bridge that content, maybe like how Microsoft imagines its mixed reality platform as co-existing in Windows. But, it also gets stranger: Abovitz says volumetric spaces called "prisms" can be able to be created quickly, even on other devices, and then shot into mixed reality and the Magic Leap.
"If you create something on a phone, we want a Magic Leap user to experience that object in a native way," he says. "The phone is a tiny portal. Magic Leap is the peak of the mountain to experience that thing." He imagines a "world of Magic Leap users, a world of phone users and a hybrid passability between ecosystems."
It won't do VR, yet
Rony Abovitz says that the Magic Leap One is aimed at mixing the real and virtual world together, but he envisions future versions of the Magic Leap being able to go just into VR-type experiences, too. "You could see future editions of Magic Leap that could go between analog and digital," says Abovitz. "[The Magic Leap] One is like the real world plus CG blended. As the portfolio grows, you should be able to [move between] virtual and physical seamlessly."
What does this mean for 2018, AR and MR?
Augmented reality jumped into the mainstream in 2017 thanks to fun demos on iPhones and Google's Pixel phones, but Magic Leap's sudden reveal points to bigger things happening next year. It's been years since the Microsoft HoloLens first showed its tech off, and the industry seems due for big movement. Avegant's light field headset, the Magic Leap One and who knows what else is in store? With a few years of VR having trained creators on how to develop virtual tools, maybe Magic Leap's approach to new mixed-reality interfaces and experiences are exactly where AR, VR and MR need to go next.