No VR startup other than Oculus has been better funded or more talked about than Magic Leap. Promising to essentially reinvent computing and entertainment, it has attracted over $ 1 billion in funding from marquee investors, while remaining secretive about its actual product. That has started to change with the company releasing some information about its first product. Called the Magic Leap One Creator Edition, it is a mixed reality (MR), nearly standalone headset featuring what the company calls a Digital Lightfield and Soundfield audio. The company is targeting developers and says the headset will be available in early 2018.
What We Know About the Magic Leap One Creator Edition
Magic Leap hasn’t provided many details about the One beyond that it will offer its (trademarked) Digital Lightfield technology. The device also has some number of cameras and sensors to allow it to map the surrounding environment (necessary for AR and MR), as well as a tracking system and what it calls Soundfield audio. The unit is cabled to a small disk-shaped box, called a Lightpack, that includes an embedded computer and battery. There will also be a touch controller that features haptic feedback.
The Lightfield Display Is Magic Leap’s Not-So-Secret Weapon
While Magic Leap has been staffing up with an army of software developers and creatives, the most-unique part of its offering is expected to be the headset’s display. The information about the One uses some confusing wording about it, explaining that it generates “digital light” (ouch) at “different depths” that blends with “natural light.” What I think that means is it can overlay computer-generated images on the user’s visual field using a lightfield-technology see-through display. Because the display generates a lightfield (where light comes from the same direction it would if the objects were actually in the real scene), it blends more effectively than a traditional display, where all objects are in “2D” at the same distance from the eye.
This design should also reduce or eliminate the problem of the eye’s accommodation (the distance on which it focuses) conflicting with vergence (the distance your two eyes think they are looking based on the disparity between the images seen by each of them).
Following in the Footsteps of HoloLens and Meta
As far as what you can actually do with a Magic Leap One, the company’s initial suggestions hew closely to the use cases Microsoft and Meta tout for their current MR headsets. Virtual desktop leads the list. I’ve played with Meta’s version and it’s a cool concept, although I think it will be a couple years before all the pieces are in place to make it ready for the broader marketplace. Then there’s immersive gaming: I got a taste of that by using Lenovo and Disney’s Jedi Challenges. It too is a compelling concept that will take some time to become mainstream as the technology improves.
More traditional AR applications, like those Apple and Google are pushing for smartphones, are also touted, but of course they should be much more immersive when used with a Magic Leap headset. The company is quick to point out it wants early developers to find new applications once they have access to the One and its SDK.
Magic Leap’s Big Gamble is the Platform
There’s definitely room for a better MR headset, so if Magic Leap can deliver one, it could quickly become the market leader. Despite several iterations, HoloLens still suffers from a limited field of view and a high price tag. Meta has had to narrow its focus — at least for now — to providing a virtual desktop environment, and hasn’t gotten much end-user traction yet. Microsoft’s low-end MR headset technology is just emerging, and isn’t currently likely to offer the high-end experiences Magic Leap is promising. However, Windows, iOS, PlayStation, and Android are all well-established platforms for developers, so Magic Leap has a tough task to get enough innovation delivered on its system to create broad demand for the eventual consumer version of its headset.
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