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What we know about the mysterious, delayed mixed reality tech


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As part of Wareable’s AR Week, we’re republishing some older features around augmented reality. This is one of them.

Waiting for Magic Leap is starting to get on our nerves and we’re sure we’re not alone. Early last year, after a series of amazing videos, it was the most exciting thing in AR but we still don’t know exactly how it works. Or when it’s coming. Or what it looks like.

Oculus, Vive and PlayStation VR have arrived, and the hype around VR is turning into the more mundane fare of people actually using the headsets, the attention around Magic Leap is only set to increase throughout 2017.

Yet now that the spotlight is on the Florida startup, the leaks we’re seeing would be enough to make anyone panic. Stories of chaos in the R&D department and delay after delay on launching its first product are not what we want to hear right now.

Here’s what we know so far. Something niggling inside tells us Magic Leap is going to be great.

What is Magic Leap?

Shot through Magic Leap technology

Magic Leap, the still-secretive but leakier and leakier startup, is developing what its CEO, Rony Abovitz, refers to as Mixed Reality Lightfield. Similar to Google Glass and HoloLens, it overlays digital 3D graphics onto your view of the real world via some kind of smartglasses/headset with transparent lenses.

To those outside Magic Leap/Microsoft, the easiest way to describe this is next-gen augmented reality. The companies themselves have been using the term mixed reality (MR) for a while now, to signify that this tech combines AR and VR and places 3D virtual elements in real environments.

We now know that it does this using its ‘photonic lightfield chip’ which Abovitz doesn’t want people to refer to as a lens, though it seems this is what users will see through. As far as we know so far, it projects virtual images onto the user’s retinas with what has been described as a “digital lightfield signal”. We don’t know exactly how light is beamed around the device and into the wearer’s eyes and how this will trick our brains – this, for now, is Magic Leap’s secret sauce.

A lightfield can capture not only every beam of light hitting our eyes but also the direction each one is travelling in and the amount of light travelling through every point in a space. This allows VR, AR and MR researchers and engineers to give virtual animations, objects and characters a sense of depth. Abovitz claims that its technology is better for our bodies – eyes, brains etc – than VR as it respects how we see and process the world.

As for what the device(s) will be called, Magic Leap filed for a trademark for ‘Sensoryware’ in March 2013, a name which definitely fits with Abovitz’s language so far.

What will it look like?

Shot through Magic Leap technology

This is one thing we really don’t know yet. Few journalists have tried Magic Leap and none have been allowed to take photos of them wearing prototype kit. The wearable itself has been referred to as a “headset”, “spectacles” and “goggles”.

The one person who has let us behind the curtain is Golden State Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala, who, in a talk with Cnet, gave us an idea about the device’s size. “The actual device is so small, that when it’s going to come to market, it’s almost like you have a pair of sunglasses on,” he said.

We also don’t know how it’ll be controlled yet, though Iguodala also gives us a peek here. He said he was able to control smart home equipment, like lights, just by using his eyes. This backs up videos showing how users can use their gaze to hover over, if not select, menu items. However, we don’t really know if there are any other control inputs. Can you use your voice, or controllers, or actual buttons? It does look like the tech can recognize player’s hands though, so there’s that.

Magic Leap: What we know about the mysterious, delayed mixed reality tech

What will it look like? Iguodala says its similar to a pair of sunglasses but there are also those pictures of a prototype “test rig”, as Abovitz called it, showing an employee wearing a wired backpack required to power the thing itself and a thick headband that looks way more HoloLens than Google Glass in size and form factor. According to the Financial Times, it’ll kind of be a combination of both.

The glasses will reportedly be smaller than Microsoft HoloLens, though with a wider field of view than regular glasses. They’ll also be tethered to a small pack, which handles power and processing, that can be placed in your pocket or belt. That sounds a lot like a patent that Magic Leap filed a while ago.

When is Magic Leap actually launching?

Magic Leap: What we know about the mysterious, delayed mixed reality tech

Your guess is as good as ours. From late 2016 and into 2017, a series of leaks has painted a pretty chaotic picture of what is going on at Magic Leap. Heading into summer 2017, however, it seems like things have stabilized a little more. Either way, there just isn’t enough evidence in either direction to assuredly point to a time frame.

Afte site The Information posted that Magic Leap’s current tech wouldn’t live up to the hype, according to former employees, Abovitz confidently tweeted: “For our launch, everyone – skeptics and friends alike – will be able to try Magic Leap for themselves.”

It’s all speculation and leaks but there have been multiple stories since that Magic Leap’s engineers are scrambling around trying to squeeze the tech into smaller and smaller form factors. Plus a female ex-employee has said that clueless execs tasked her with making a pink version of the product for women. And well, reportedly Beyonce tried a mermaid demo and wasn’t impressed so…

In 2016 rumours from VRWorld suggested that the first planned tech demo was set for the end of 2016 with an official unveil at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. That didn’t happen obviously.

Plus back in February 2016, Abovitz posted this update with quite a bit of official detail: “We are setting up supply chain operations, manufacturing – many whirligigs and test machines and gizmos abound these days. Engineers move about our spaces with a sense of urgency. Intense debates about every form of science and art you can imagine float about. Plans have been made. Program and production managers track progress. Coders are coding.”

Later in 2016, at a Fortune conference in Aspen, Colorado, Abovitz said the team was currently debugging the production line. While that sounded promising he was still cagey about an actual release.

And then there’s Ricky Gervais, who, in mid-April, decided to tweet at Magic Leap and ask, “You are about to change the world, how does that feel?” While that doesn’t tell us anything specifically, the phrasing there, and Magic Leap’s response of “joy, optimism and nervous excitement”, make it seem like any public reveal would happen sooner rather than later. Of course, this relies on our speculation that Gervais tried Magic Leap himself.

Gervais’ tweeting is given more credence when you consider that the Financial Times casually mentioned that Magic Leap’s device would beat both Apple and Facebook to the AR game by launching later this year. Given everything we know about some of the problems Magic Leap has faced, that seems more like a target than a firm window.

What apps and games will it run?

Thanks to Magic Leap’s video teasers, we’ve got a good idea of the kinds of things it wants us to use its tech for in the future. Abovitz has called it “an operating system for reality”. So far, the apps fall into a couple of groups – productivity/education/everyday essentials and games.

So on the one hand, the vids show users opening up emails, buying shoes and brushing up on their mountain climbing history. And on the other, there’s AR games that take over the office and CG animated jellyfish floating above the wearer’s head. Plus, thanks to Iguodala we know that there’s some kind of digital character you can hold in your hand that acts as an AR personal assistant.

Magic Leap also has some high profile friends in the form of WETA Workshop and Peter Jackson. WETA is building a virtual world for Magic Leap. It’s called Dr. Grordborts and features ray guns. And the Lord of the Rings director is working on something for the platform, though we don’t know whether that’s Grordborts or another project.

The WETA project is confirmed but one tantalising rumour is that Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One adaptation will, in some way, include something for Magic Leap.

Warner Bros is an early investor so we could look forward to something from the studio in due course. One more thing detailed in patents is Digital Live Artists and Digital Music Venue apps – beaming musicians into your living room for a private AR gig and placing you (and friends) into a concert environment.

Lucasfilm is another company that’s joined the Magic Leap fold. Specifically, the ILMxLab will be partnering with the company to create Star Wars experiences. We’ve already played with an HTC Vive experience made by xLab and were duly impressed so we can’t wait to see what Magic Leap Star Wars will be like.

Magic Leap has also gone on a bit of a shopping spree for content recently, purchasing FuzzyCube Software, a game developer founded by former Apple employees and game developers that have worked on games like Halo Wars and Age of Empires. The company also looked into purchasing Moonbot Studios, an Academy Award-winning animation house. While IP issues kept Magic Leap from purchasing the company outright, it did end up hiring about a dozen animators and artists from Moonbot.

From the sound of things, it seems like Magic Leap is working towards creating a healthy content ecosystem with both first-party and third-party entertainment support alongside a more standard AR operating system.

Who is behind it?

You might have seen Rony Abovitz’ incredible, bonkers TEDx Talk from way back in 2013. Before he founded Magic Leap, which is now based in Dania Beach, Florida, Abovitz co-founded a company called MAKO Surgical Corp which made surgical robotic arms and was sold for $1.65 billion in 2013. He is the best kind of eccentric entrepreneur, at least in terms of his public persona.

He blogs. Plays in an indie rock band. Drew quirky cartoons in his university newspaper. And describes his technology in poetic language like “a living river of light sculpture” and “the part without atoms” instead of releasing specs and features. His Twitter bio simply says: “This is me – friend of people, animals and robots.”

Then there’s the investors. Magic Leap raised around half a billion dollars in 2014 initially then added $794 million to that total to make $1.4 billion. Investors so far include Google, Qualcomm, Warner Bros and Alibaba.

Abovitz has announced a partnership between Magic Leap and Twilio with plans to add its software, which lets app developers tack on phone calls or text messaging, to the Leap system.

In keeping with the usual air of mystery around Magic Leap, there’s also a program from the company letting 10 outside developers work with Magic Leap devices but the timeframe was undisclosed and details were sparse. “We’ll build a ‘Hello world, this is how you do stuff,'” said Abovitz, “and then you guys build something with us and be amongst the first people in the world to get your hands on what we’re doing and make really cool things.”

How much will it cost?

The only nugget we have here is from the Financial Times, which says that Magic Leap’s headset would compete with Microsoft’s HoloLens in price and retail in excess of $1,000. That’s a bit of a large range, as the dev kit for Microsoft’s device is currently $3,000. While it’s not very specific, it does narrow down the price range we can expect. All we really know is that if there’s enough interest in the first iteration and the rest of the industry continues to experiment and release products, the price will eventually come down.

Are you excited about Magic Leap? Or are you just jaded now? Let us know in the comments.

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