Magic Leap: Holographic hype or the future of AR?

AR Week: We're wondering if we'll ever get to play with that light field
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We couldn't have AR Week without taking on the mystery of Magic Leap. We're still waiting for anything – really, we'll take anything – concrete out of the Florida-based mixed reality startup, so our US editor Hugh Langley and features editor Sophie Charara decided to pass the time with a spat over Magic Leap's chances at coming out on top in the big AR/MR scrum.

We both want Magic Leap to succeed, but let's just say one of us is more wary of the months and months and months of nothing but super-secretive demos than the other. Let us know your two cents in the comments below.

Hugh: I still believe

I still have faith in Magic Leap. It's impossible to talk about mixed reality without mentioning the theoretical trailblazer. The elusive company, nestled away in Florida's Fort Lauderdale, has been generating buzz around its MR technology for what seems like forever. We've seen video snippets, heard tales that are becoming folklore, and, sadly, heard a lot of negative buzz too.

The key to Magic Leap's technology is the light field

But I continue to have hope. If Magic Leap is everything it has claimed to be, then this will be the mixed reality tech we've been craving for so long. Magic Leap has had plenty of gestures of faith. Google is a key investment partner; CEO Sundar Pichai sits on the startup's board. Last year Chinese retail giant Alibaba led a series C funding round of $793.5 million, which is also known as "hella bucks". People believe this is going to be as big of a deal as it says.

Magic Leap: Holographic hype or the future of AR?

The key to Magic Leap's technology is the light field, which mimics the way our eyes perceive objects in the real world. It's a vital piece of the puzzle, but so far only Avegant has shown off something similar. Exactly how Magic Leap will make use of it won't be clear until we try it, but what Avegant showed me in a demo is what Leap appears to be claiming to have too. It works by creating simultaneous focal planes, so you can fully focus on objects at any distance, including meteors and the International Space Station. In my demo of Avegant's tech for example, I was able to step inside a solar system (like the one Magic has shown off) and see every planet of varying distance in incredible detail. I haven't been able to do that in any form of AR/MR before.

Read this: Augmented v mixed reality – it isn't just semantics

This is the reason you can't get too close to objects in HoloLens – it doesn't support the same technology. HoloLens has other advantages, such as being independent and tracking the room from the inside out, but when it comes to the quality of the images being conjured, Magic could leapfrog the competition.

Now is the time to show us the proof, though, because we need the bar to be raised. We need Magic Leap to show everyone what truly mind-blowing mixed reality should look like. That's not to disparage Microsoft or others out there who are having a swing at MR, but this technology hasn't yet captured people's imaginations in the way it deserves to. What's more, HoloLens is now looking more to enterprise, while Avegant is choosing to provide the tech to companies but won't actually build a headset itself.

With ARKit about to take off, it would be a good time for Magic Leap to emerge. It's time to show us the promised land.

Sophie: I'm not holding my breath

I've been here for Magic Leap since the beginning, three years ago, but I have been suffering from serious hype fatigue in the past six months. Note to anyone at Magic Leap reading this: the quickest way to change my mind is to let me try it myself.

I can see Magic Leap becoming the Oculus of AR

I've been excited about what I've heard of Magic Leap's vision and the tech, talent and resources it has gathered to shoot for it. Last month CEO Rony Abovitz said that its first product "launch is not that far away." This week, its "chief games wizard" Graeme Devine was teasing the idea of mixed reality that truly interacts with the real world, specifically the "killer app" of Everyday Adventures, stories that are added to your life.

And yet, here are the sources of my anxiety. I can see Magic Leap becoming the Oculus of AR. It may still launch before any true rivals and it will be influential when it does. Then what? Say Abovitz's idea of "affordable" isn't quite low enough to result in big sales and, say, the form factor and set up isn't too far off those worryingly bulky, laptop-on-the-back prototype pics.

Say the public, and more importantly Beyonce who was not impressed, needs a year or two of good smartphone AR to come round to the idea of everyday AR glasses.

Apple, specifically, could still end up on top two, three or five years down the line thanks to the ubiquity of iOS, its history of making devs money and the formidable augmented reality team of ex-Nasa, Microsoft, Oculus and yes, Magic Leap, engineers, thinkers and execs it has been quietly building.

Early on we heard that Peter Jackson and Weta were creating games for Magic Leap, but it was on the WWDC stage that we saw Jackson's Wingnut AR studio showing off an actual ARKit tabletop demo. I know Lucasfilm/ILM are on board, Spielberg has been linked to Magic Leap too, but these studios are not going to be loyal if launches get delayed.

Magic Leap has raised $1.4 billion from great partners like Google, Alibaba, Warner Bros and the rest at a $4.5 billion valuation – these are insanely huge amounts of money. Then again, Facebook has allocated $3 billion to VR, Snap (rumoured to be developing AR glasses post Spectacles) is valued at more than $20 billion and Apple is sitting on $250 billion in cash reserves as of May 2017.

Magic Leap: Holographic hype or the future of AR?

There's plenty of money flying around when it comes to the next big platforms, and Magic Leap needs to get its shit together when it comes to those leaks about teams being a hot mess when it comes to showing progress – not to mention the ongoing sexual harassment allegations.

I have no doubt that Magic Leap's lightfield tech is innovating in terms of contextual awareness and interactivity, focal planes etc etc. But as Hugh points out, Avegant is showing off a light field platform – which sounds like it should be snapped up asap – plus companies like Nvidia have been working on these displays for years. And who knows what is happening in secret in Cupertino, Mountain View and Redmond?

Whether 2017/18 makes or breaks it, I'd wager that when the holographic history app of augmented reality is coded, Magic Leap will be right there in the mix. The next 12 months will show us what this startup is really made of.


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Hugh Langley


Now at Business Insider, Hugh originally joined Wareable from TechRadar where he’d been writing news, features, reviews and just about everything else you can think of for three years.

Hugh is now a correspondent at Business Insider.

Prior to Wareable, Hugh freelanced while studying, writing about bad indie bands and slightly better movies. He found his way into tech journalism at the beginning of the wearables boom, when everyone was talking about Google Glass and the Oculus Rift was merely a Kickstarter campaign - and has been fascinated ever since.

He’s particularly interested in VR and any fitness tech that will help him (eventually) get back into shape. Hugh has also written for T3, Wired, Total Film, Little White Lies and China Daily.

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