Magic Leap: DOA, over-hyped or still possible?

Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype
Well, maybe it IS only a lens. Not too long ago, Magic Leap were proclaiming they had more than just a lens, but a Photonic Chip. The Infromation thinks it was just more hype. Credit: Wired.

Magic Leap has been the most controversial company in the emerging market of new VR, AR and MR technologies. Super-secretive but boasting an influx of US $1.4 billion in capital from leading technical and entertainments companies  – including Google – it has drawn a lot of attention, despite almost nothing of its technology being generally revealed.

Magic Leap promises a headset system which will be as easy to wear and remove as a pair of glass – but crucially, and despite several years of development work , has not revealed anything of what this headset might look like beyond various patent filings. In the meantime, the company has continued to release astonishing videos of their product’s apparent capabilities. Some of these were undeniably special effects enhanced pieces – but it now appears that this might be the case with more of the videos than the company were actually willing to let on.

In particular, on December 8th, the paywalled site The Information published a report on Magic Leap indicating that at least one of the more recent videos – that of office workers playing a shoot-’em-up game which was stated as being filmed using Magic Leap’s own technology was actually enhanced by Magic Leap partner, Weta Workshop (Weta’s head, Sir Richard Taylor, was an early investor in the company, and his business partner, director Peter Jackson, is an advisor). This has led to questions being raised over just how genuine Magic Leap is, and how real their product might in fact be.

The Verge summarises the report from The Information, pointing to the less-than-honest video and making mention of Magic Leap’s massive test rig, called The Beast, and the fact that as yet, the company hasn’t moved beyond a tethered headset style device which is claimed to give an inferior result when compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens. This has prompted others to question whether Magic Leap is dead – or potentially could be DOA, given it appears to lag behind what might be somewhat comparable products such as the HoloLens.

Magic Leap haven't been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired
Magic Leap haven’t been entirely secretive about the size of some of their test rigs. Credit: Peter Yang / Wired

As it is, the report from The Information stands sharply at odds with those from the likes of Wired, where Peter Yang from Wired spent time with Magic Leap back in April 2016, using that experience to tell The Untold Story of Magic Leap. Then, shortly ahead of The Information’s piece, and at the end of November, Forbes’ David Ewalt sat down with Magic Leap’s founder, Romy Abovitz. Like The Information’s Reed Albergotti, both Yang and Ewalt reference the fact that Magic leap utilises a headset rather than “glasses”, but that’s about all their articles have in common with Albergotti’s view. So where does that leave us?

First off, scepticism is healthy. There are many promises being made around VR / AR and MR, many of which could well be a mix of hype, hope and wishful endeavour. WE also have little ide just what reporters are being shown – and there is no denying Abovitz enjoys his role as unconventional showman.

Even so, it’s hard to see Magic Leap as purely being smoke and mirrors and flimflam; Abovitz has a track record of innovation and product delivery – he sold his medical robotic company for US $1.7 billion in 2009. Magic Leap has also made no secret of being in things for a long haul, developing a new paradigm in computing, while Albergotti acknowledges the company is now working towards a pair of glasses type of headset, albeit with different technology for their earlier work. Thus, writing them off entirely could be a premature.

A final point is that the company has never gone beyond saying a consumer product will be appearing “soonish”. Ewalt, writing for Forbes, estimates Magic Leap has perhaps another 18 months to go before a consumer launch. That’s a long time, given the HoloLens and Meta’s offerings will be out will before then. but the latter two are liable to have price tags of US $1,000 or more. If this is the case, are they really liable to corner the market, particularly if Magic Leap comes up with a product as user-friendly (and potentially superior) as Peter Yang at Wired feels will be the case – and at a lower price point, even if it is based on technology other than the hyped “Digital Lightfield™”?

The only thing we perhaps can say as a result of this is the hype trains – positive and negative – on what VR / AR / MR might or might not deliver will likely continue to rumble forward for a while yet.

With thanks to Roblem VR

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VR and AR catch-up

Oculus Touch: shipping December 6yh, price: US $199.00
Oculus Touch: shipping December 6th, price: US $199.00

It’s been a while since I’ve covered anything in the VR and AR markets, so here’s a very quick catch-up on the main products I have been following on-and-off in these pages, and about which I’d been meaning to write about during October / November.

Oculus Rift: Touch and AWS

In October 2016, Oculus Rift opened the doors to pre-orders of the Touch, their hand controller system, due to start shipping on December 6th, 2016. The Touch price point is US $199.00 (approx. £189 / 187 / AU $265), which includes of Toybox, the multiplayer sandbox application designed specifically to show-off the controllers, and five Touch-ready game tiles.

Alongside of the Touch, Oculus announced additional Rift sensors would also be shipping on December 6th, 2016, at a price of US $79 (approx. £62.55 / 74.18 / AU $106.47), offering similar room-sized scanning capability as the HTC Vive. A new earbud system, designed to replace the earphones on the headset for a more immersive sound experience, was also made available for pre-order (again shipping on December 6th, at a cost of $49 (approx. £38.81 / 46 / AU $66).

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

As a rough-and-ready price comparison. The HTC Vive, which includes a headset with front-mounted “see-through” camera, two controllers and two room sensors for tracking) is prices at about US $800. The Oculus Rift (which ships with one sensor) + touch + and additional sensor comes to roughly US $877, with some recommending two additional sensors offer optimal scanning bringing that total to US $956. Obviously, the latter package also includes a hefty amount of additional software, including Toybox.

On November 10th 2016, Oculus VR confirmed they were lowering the minimum specification for hardware needed to run an Oculus VR experience  comfortably, as a result of something called Asynchronous Spacewarp, or AWS.  The announcement came with a long and involved description of what AWS is, which the press announcement summarised down to a TL;DR summary:

Oculus is releasing a new technology aimed at reducing system hardware requirements while maintaining content quality across a wider array of hardware. Asynchronous Spacewarp (ASW) is a frame-rate smoothing technique that almost halves the CPU/GPU time required to produce nearly the same output from the same content. Like Asynchronous Timewarp (ATW), ASW is automatic and enabled without any additional effort from developers.

In other words, and to summarise the summary, AWS allows VR experiences remain fluid to the eye by “making up” the “in-between” animation frames, reducing the demand of continued, heavy processing on the part of the CPU / GPU.

On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the
On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the “in-between” animation frames, where the direction of the fox’s motion is “known”. Credit: TechRadar

This is turn means that “lower end” systems can now in theory run VR experiences which incorporate AWS. Although it has to be said that “lower end” must be approached with something of a caveat: it reduces the GPU requirement from a minimum of a NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 and  Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater to a NVIDIA GTX 960 / AMD Radeon RX 470 or greater and Intel i3-6100 / AMD FX4350 or greater – which some might consider a small move of the needle.

Finally, Oculus VR is working on an untethered version of the Rift headset, currently called Santa Cruz. It appeared in prototype form in October 2016, and includes a built-in processing system mounted with the headset, removing the need for it to be connected to a PC. Initial reports from those able to try the prototype were mixed, with several reporters noting their evaluations were carefully controlled, and that Oculus engineers were evasive when asked about the actual processing power and performance of the headset.

HTC Vive

On November 11th, 2016, HTC announced pre-orders were open for a “tether-less” kit for the Vive headset, produced by TPCAST, a Vive X Accelerator invested company. The kit comprises a wireless relay unit and battery pack to power the headset, bot of which attach to the headset harness, removing the need to connect it to a PC via USB cables. In difference to claims that wireless is “unsuitable” for VR due to factors such as latency, TPCAST is said to have no “noticeable difference” when using it with a Vive headset when compared to using the headset tethered directly to a PC.

The TPCAST wireless kit mounted on an HTC Vive
The TPCAST wireless kit mounted on a HTC Vive. Credit: HTC / TPCast

Continue reading “VR and AR catch-up”

Magic Leap reveals a little more about their AR system

Romy Abovitz talks Magic Leap at WSJD Live (image courtesy of engagdet)
Romy Abovitz talks Magic Leap at WSJD Live (image courtesy of Engagdet)

Magic Leap, the augmented reality company established by enigmatic entrepreneur Rony Abovitz, and which gained over US $500 million from the likes of Google in 2014 (see my article from October 2014),  revealed a little more about its product during a WSJD Live interview recently.

As reported by Nicole Lee for Engadget, Abovitz and Chief Content Officer Rio Caraeff talked in general terms about the system which has caused no small amount of excitement among those who have actually seen it in action. People such as Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, who sits on the Magic Leap board and was one of the driving forces behind Google’s lion’s share of the half-billion funding mentioned above, and who shares a place on the board with Qualcomm’s executive chairman, Paul Jacobs, another investor from that round of funding.

The technology has also wowed leading lights from the entertainment industry such as Weta Workshop’s co-founder Richard Taylor (one of the first to invest in Magic Leap), and Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Entertainment (aka Legendary Pictures). For those outside, however, Magic Leap has perhaps come over as a riddle bordering on smoke and mirrors.

Magic Lap's website splash screen (no pun intended)
The Magic Leap website splash screen (no pun intended)

Talking at the WSJD event, Abovitz indicated Magic Leap won’t be tied to a particular platform or OS, but will be entirely self-contained and with a dedicated OS. He also indicates that in difference to those dismissing AR on the grounds that “no-one likes to wear glasses for long”, the form factor for the unit will be something people won’t fight shy of wearing. He also states it will allow them to maintain a normal relationship with others when in use – a little dig, no doubt, at the first generation of cumbersome and isolating VR headsets about to hit the market.

Alongside of the interview, Magic Leap also released a new video which they state is filmed entirely through Magic Leap technology and with no special effects or compositing.

Quite how the system works, however, is still a mystery. No headsets are shown in any of the company’s promotional material, and much is made of the use of a “Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal” (which we can call “Digital Lightfield™”). In speaking at WSJD, Abovitz and  Caraeff both skirted specifics, with the former only saying, “We treat human biology as our centre point; everyone already has a head-mounted display. It’s your head!”

This suggests the company is perhaps pursuing direct retinal projection, possibly in some form of headset unit that is less intrusive than the kind of units suggestive in the patent filings the company has made in the past. And if this sounds like science-fiction, remember Abovitz made his money developing medical technology, and the company has apparently devoted considerable effort into researching the relationship between the photonic light field and the way the brain functions.

Patent filed for Magic Leap by , draws extensively on one of earlier patents for augmented reality headsets styled in both "regular glasses" and "wrap-around" form factors (US 20120162549 A1)
Patent WO 2014043196 A1, filed for Magic Leap by Chunyu Gao for augmented reality headsets styled in both “regular glasses” and “wrap-around” form factors, suggesting some form of headset will be a necessary part of the system – click for full size

So what is the purpose of all this? Caraeff indicated the ultimate am is for Magic Leap to provide broad-based platform for visual computing. “Anything that you can do on your smartphone, on your computer; you’ll be able to do on Magic Leap,” he said, then added, “Where the world is your screen.”

“We believe the future of computing should be natural,” Abovitz stated. “With Magic Leap, your brain doesn’t distinguish what’s real and what’s Magic Leap, because as far as your brain’s concerned, it is real.”

I admit to being far more persuaded that AR will generate a greater mass market presence than VR. Despite the negative memes about people not liking glasses and Google’s misplaced Glass product, AR would appear to be far more inclusive in its use than VR, and have the same potential reach into many of the markets being hailed as VR’s territory: business, medical, education, healthcare and entertainment.

Whether Magic Leap will actually pave the way in this regard as units start to roll off the company’s new production line in Florida at some point in the future, is open to debate. I do, however, admit to being more intrigued by the potential of AR systems like it and CastAR than I am with the first generation of VR headsets we’re about to see.

Additional material on the WSJD Live event via The Verge.

The man whose novel helped inspire Second Life takes a Magic Leap

It has been announced that science-fiction author Neal Stephenson has become the latest high-profile individual to join the ranks of Magic Leap, the still-mysterious company that seems to be doing something highly innovative with augmented reality – and perhaps virtual reality as well.

Stephenson, who wrote Snow Crash, the novel which first coined the term “metaverse” and is often referred to as one of the influences behind the development of Second Life, has accepted the position of “Chief Futurist” at Magic Leap, in news being broken by the likes of Wired and The Verge.

Neal Stephenson, Magic Leap's new
Neal Stephenson, Magic Leap’s new “Chief Futurist” (image: Bob Lee via Flickr)

Writing in a blog post for Magic Leap, Stephenson states he had been approached by the company months ago – and in a rather unique way:

A few months ago, two Irishmen, a Scot, and an American appeared on my doorstep with Orcrist, aka “Goblin-cleaver,” the ancient sword forged during the First Age of Middle Earth by the High Elves of Gondolin, later retrieved from a troll hoard by Thorin Oakenshield. It’s not every day that someone turns up at your house bearing a mythic sword, and so I did what anyone who has read a lot of fantasy novels would: I let them in and gave them beer. True to form, they invited me on a quest and asked me to sign a contract (well, an NDA actually).

The use of Orcrist in the offer is cleverly symbolic: one of the Board of Directors of Magic Leap is Sir Richard Taylor, founder and head of WETA Workshop, the company behind the models, costumes and special effects seen in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies directed by Peter Jackson.

Precisely what Magic Leap is developing is something of a mystery, although as I’ve previously reported in these pages, what has been shown to the likes of Google, Legendary Pictures, Andreessen Horowitz and others led them to invest some $542 million into the company in October – and that on top of $50 million of investment at the start of the year.

What little is known about Magic Leap is that it is currently working on what it calls “cinematic reality”, which uses a headset which may eventually look something like a pair of sunglasses to overlay anything the wearer sees in the real world with 3D digital images that move and respond to the wearer’s own head an eye movements, and which appear to “interact” with the physical world around the wearer.

You'll believe a whale can fly - or that's perhaps Magic Leap's hope (among more practical things)
You’ll believe a whale can fly – or that’s perhaps Magic Leap’s hope (among more practical things)

Recently, Sean Hollister over at Gizmodo followed the lead set by Tom Simonite, a bureau chief at MIT Technology Review, in tracing down patents filed by Magic Leap in an attempt to find out more about what the company may actually be producing. As I again reported, their findings make fascinating reading for anyone interested in emerging AR and VR technologies – and in the history of Magic Leap, which up until the huge investment by Google et al, had been quietly flying under the radar for a number of years.

In that same report, I also covered the fact that what might be on of Magic Leap’s first major public demonstrations could be at the Manchester International Festival here in the UK in July 2015.

The Age of Starlight is a new film bringing together Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald, the visual effects team behind the 2013 George Clooney / Sandra Bullock blockbuster Gravity and science pundit and physicist Professor Brian Cox. The film will tell the story of the cosmos around us utilising Magic Leap technology, allowing audiences of up to 50 people at a time witness – and be immersed in – the unfolding majesty and mystery of the universe in what is billed as being a transformative, emotional experience.

The Age of Starlight: an immersive, transformative film using Magic Leap technology will be shown at the Manchester International Festival in the UK in 2015
The Age of Starlight: an immersive, transformative film using Magic Leap technology will be shown at the Manchester International Festival in the UK in 2015

It is apparently this transformative power within the Magic Leap technology that has attracted Neal Stephenson. Again, on the Magic Leap blog he states:

Here’s where you’re probably expecting the sales pitch about how mind-blowingly awesome the demo was. But it’s a little more interesting than that. Yes, I saw something on that optical table I had never seen before–something that only Magic Leap, as far as I know, is capable of doing. And it was pretty cool. But what fascinated me wasn’t what Magic Leap had done but rather what it was about to start doing.

Magic Leap is mustering an arsenal of techniques–some tried and true, others unbelievably advanced–to produce a synthesized light field that falls upon the retina in the same way as light reflected from real objects in your environment. Depth perception, in this system, isn’t just a trick played on the brain by showing it two slightly different images.

Magic Leap is not exclusively about games. It’s also going to be a great tool for readers, learners, scientists, and artists … What applies to games applies as well to other things of interest, such as making the world safe for books, doing new things with science and math visualization, and simply creating art for art’s sake.

We still don’t know precisely what Magic Leap will present or how it will work, and truth be told, there is an awful lot of hype and hyperbole surrounding the emerging new market for AR and VR it is hard at times to separate fact from fiction. But when the likes of Sir Richard Taylor and Thomas Tull (CEO of Legendary Pictures) pour their own money into a project, and it attracts names such as Brian Cox, Kevin MacDonald and now Neal Stephenson – you have to suspect something very special might well be sitting just over the horizon.

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