Magic Leap previews its first AR/MR system

Magic Leap One. Credit: Magic Leap

Magic Leap has had its share of ups-and-downs over the past few years. Founded by tech wizard Romy Abovitz, the super-secret company has been at the centre of hype, speculation and doubt. Much of the hype has been spun by the company itself, much of the doubt has been driven by reports of friction in the company, issues with the technology, and so on.

Now, a year after scepticism around the company overtook the hype, Magic Leap has announced the availability of its first product: the Billed as the Magic Leap One Creator Edition augmented (or mixed) reality system, the unit comprises three parts:

  • Lightwear: a headset utilizing the company’s “Digital Lightfield” display technology with multiple integrated sensors to gather spatial information.
  • Lightpack: a  circular belt-worn hip pack that contains the computer powering the headset via a tether.
  • Control: a hand-held controller that can be tracked in space that helps users navigate menu selections, etc.

As an augmented / mixed reality system Magic Leap One is designed to blur the divide between the digital and the real, with the company promoting a series of potential use-cases for it, including:  web browsing and shopping, working on multiple virtual monitors, social telepresence, theme park “rides” and experiences, and gaming.

The system is somewhat removed from some of the hype built-up around Magic Leap’s initial designs – which tended to suggest something far more glasses-like.

There’s no doubt the headset is a lot bulkier than might have been imagined from past descriptions, and while nowhere near as bulky as a VR headset, it leaves a lot to be desired in the ergonomics department, particularly when compared to the likes of AR headsets like Google’s Glass Enterprise Edition or AR systems using  Qualcomm’s snapdragon processors. My own impression on seeing the Magic Leap One images is that the headset looks sci-fi bug-eyed  – almost sinister – and the size of the lenses has me wondering about effective field-of-view.

Lightwear, Lightpack and Control. Credits: Magic Leap

The Lightpack has also come in for critique, with some tech journos calling it “large” or “bulky”. been called “large” by some in the tech press, it’s actually about the same size as Walkman CD players people used to happily clip onto their belts and wear.

The Control has a trackpad and six degrees of freedom (6DOF) tracking, and some six option buttons.

Other than that – details are currently light right now. There are no technical specifications or pricing. However, and in fairness, Abovitz does refer to the announcement as “a small reveal“, rather than any kind of pre-release notification. Instead, interested parties (defined as developers, reporters and the curious) can register their wish to learn more by supplying their e-mail details via a form as the bottom of the Magic Leap home page.

So far, Magic Leap has demonstrated various iterations of their equipment to assorted people from the technology and entertainments industries. All seem to have been thoroughly impressed – although sworn to secrecy – which has been frustrating for those trying to figure out exactly what the company has got. This approach actually continues with this pre-announcement about Magic Leap One – Rolling Stone magazine has an extensive article about Magic Leap in Glixel – but the use of an NDA prevents much in the way of really solid facts around the technology from being revealed, while descriptions of environments are sans images.

Telepresence with Magic Leap One? Credit: Magic Leap

There are, however, some intriguing little pieces of information within the article – such as this ability to generate very life-like characters, which Brian Crecente, writing for Glixel, suggests could become a kind of virtual assistant for those using the Magic Leap:

She walked up to me, stopping a few feet away, to stand nearby. The level of detail was impressive, though I wouldn’t mistake her for a real person, there was something about her luminescence, her design, that gave her away. While she didn’t talk or react to what I was saying, she has the ability to [do so] … I noticed that when I moved or looked around, her eyes tracked mine. The cameras inside the Lightwear was feeding her data so she could maintain eye contact. It was a little unnerving and I found myself breaking eye contact eventually, to avoid being rude.

One day, this human construct will be your Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, OK Google, but she won’t just be a disembodied voice, she will walk with you, look to you, deliver AI-powered, embodied assistance.

Which sounds very sci-fi-ish, raising the idea of virtual tour guides and suchlike – as well as the question of whether or not we’ll have to cross the uncanny valley with AR as well as (possibly) VR.

I’m somewhat of the belief that AR / MR has the potential to be far more ubiquitous that VR, and garner a much larger, multi-use audience. The likes of Glass Enterprise and several of snapdragon headsets demonstrate considerable interest within healthcare, engineering and retail. The very nature of the technology means it can be integrated far more easily into our everyday lives and work than VR allows. That said, where and if Magic Leap fits into all of this remains as murky as ever. Perhaps the upcoming “Creator Portal”, promised for “early 2018”, coupled with a lifting of the restrictions concerning direct reporting on the system will do more to answer questions.

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