Magic Leap clashes with Microsoft over augmented reality health risks

Magic Leap CEO says Microsoft's HoloLens headset may be unsafe, but he ultimately raises more questions about the potential risks of immersing ourselves in 3D worlds.

Nick Statt
Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
5 min read

One of the few digital renderings of Magic Leap's technology at work, showing a 3D image of an elephant nestled in someone's hands. Magic Leap

Microsoft's recently announced futuristic holographic headset may pose a health risk to users, according to the CEO of Magic Leap, a secretive augmented-reality startup and newfound rival to Microsoft in the burgeoning AR space.

Microsoft's HoloLens uses an input system that does not fully replicate the physical connections between our eyes and our brains, possibly resulting in permanent effects on your brain, Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz wrote Tuesday in a Reddit AskMeAnything thread when asked about the device. As such, Abovitz recommended avoiding use of the headset and others like it.

"There are a class of devices (see-through and non-see-through) called stereoscopic 3D. We at Magic Leap believe these inputs into the eye-brain system are incorrect -- and can cause a spectrum of temporary and/or permanent neurologic deficits," Abovitz wrote, when asked how his company's technology compares to the HoloLens.

"I personally experienced a number of these stereoscopic-3D issues -- and would not wear these devices -- especially knowing that digital light-field systems are on the way and safe," he added.

Abovitz, of course, has a horse in the race. Magic Leap, which was virtually unknown until October, is designing its very own so-called augmented reality system that will create 3D objects and overlay them onto a standard scene, like in the palm of your hand or around your living room. Though, Abovitz says that his company's device will use "digital light-field signal technology that respects the biology of the human eye-brain system in a profound and safe way." Magic Leap has scooped up almost $600 million in funding, with Google leading the charge.

Microsoft, meanwhile, became the unlikely face of AR in January when it showed its HoloLens headset and impressed journalists ( myself included) with full-blown demos that felt reasonably close to the envisioned final product. The HoloLens appears to work similarly to Magic Leap's technology by blending artificial light with the light your eyes receive from the real world, mashing the two scenes into one and creating life-like 3D objects and environments at scale.

Yet there is a dispute whether Microsoft's HoloLens is functioning the same as Magic Leap's purported technology. Magic Leap has refused to show off its device, and neither company has fully expressed how its devices generate 3D images -- be it through light blasted directly on to your eyes, a visor with projector-like technique or a full display in an enclosed headset.

The distinction is key to Abovitz's accusation, though Microsoft declined to explain whether his description of HoloLens was accurate. Instead, a Microsoft spokesperson said to look to its annual Build developers conference in April, "where we will share more details." Alex Kipman, who heads up the HoloLens project at Microsoft, notably name-dropped Magic Leap at the January 21 unveiling of the HoloLens, saying Microsoft was open to collaborating with others on the technology. Abovitz said Tuesday his company "had other plans."

The lack of information about such products, especially so with Magic Leap and its insistence on secrecy, has created an aura of mystery around AR and VR unrivaled in the tech industry. How these devices function, what they're actually doing to our eyes and our brains and what, if any, are the side effects remain open questions.

That's not stopping companies from gearing up. VR systems, considered easier to develop than AR, are being trotted out left and right, from companies as diverse as Sony, Samsung and Facebook that are all attempting to arrive at the same destination using different techniques, hardware and software. This kind of shot-taking against competitors is bound to heat up in the coming months as systems move from prototypes and developer kits to consumer products. The question of safety and health risks, too, are bound to be top of mind as 3D systems and virtual worlds proliferate.

Microsoft's HoloLens prototype has all the innards of a computer built directly into the headset. That means no cords or even a smartphone required. Microsoft

While there has not been a considerable amount of scientific study on the neurologic and physical health risks of long-term VR and AR use, current systems in development have notably caused short-term feelings of nausea and dizziness. The US Army refuses to use gadgets like the Oculus Rift VR headset for those reasons in its combat simulation training, opting instead for high-end systems to prevent sickness.

In October 2014, a San Diego resident reported serious withdrawal symptoms from using Google's Glass headset, including an involuntary tapping motion on his temple previously used to activate the device and consistent dreaming as if he were looking through the gadget's lens at all times. He was later diagnosed with the first Internet addiction disorder derived from Google Glass. The other side effects, including neurologic deficits Abovitz appears to be referring to, of immersing ourselves in virtual worlds and plastering screens over our day-to-day vision will only become a larger part of the conversation around VR and AR in the future.

Without seeing Magic Leap's approach, it's hard to say whether the startup's technology is any safer than Microsoft's. After all, stereoscopy is an imaging technique underlying most movie theater 3D glasses and the Nintendo 3DS video game handheld. It's also how most virtual reality systems, like the Facebook-owned Oculus, create full 360-degree virtual environments by essentially mashing a smartphone screen up against your eyes.

Joyce Farrell, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Image Systems Engineering, said Abovitz's claims hold little water beyond a light-field display -- as Magic Leap claims to have -- being easier on the eyes.

"The thing that people are complaining about that may cause fatigue is that you have to converge your eyes at a certain place in a certain way that is non consistent with natural viewing," she told CNET of stereoscopic displays like the Oculus Rift.

When asked if there were any differences between a light-field display and stereoscopic display, Farrell said it boils down to how the 3D images are being produced, nothing more. She added that there was "no evidence" supporting the claim that neurologic damage could be done by either display technique.

Abovitz did go on to clarify his position on the medical implications of using stereoscopic 3D right up against your eyes later on his Q&A:

I would answer it this way -- our philosophy as a company (and my personal view) is to "leave no footprints" in the brain. The brain is very neuroplastic - and there is no doubt that near-eye stereoscopic 3D systems have the potential to cause neurologic change. There is a history (for optics geeks) of issues that near-eye stereoscopic 3D may cause -- but this has always been very limited use and small populations (like the military). We have done an internal hazard and risk analysis (like the kind I did from my med-tech/surgical robotics days) on the spectrum of hazards that may occur to a wide array of users. Frequency of use, duration of use, and the neuroplasticity of the user are all key factors - but because we are all people - we may all be impacted.

A Magic Leap spokesperson clarified Abovitz's comments, saying, "We believe if technology is not replicating all of the physiologic important parameters of a light-field, which the human opto-neuro system requires, it can cause a spectrum of temporary and/or permanent neurologic deficits."

In other words, Magic Leap is saying it's figured out the secret to making this technology safer. It just won't tell us how quite yet.