I’m struggling to think of a technology in the last five years that’s conjured as much hype as Magic Leap. Shrouded in secrecy in Florida, far from the prying eyes of Silicon Valley, Leap has manufactured absurd expectations out of little more than words. And it's worked. As the years went on, the money pot grew – to date the company’s raised more than $2 billion – and in turn the hype surged and surged. Round and round we went, with nary a glimpse of the goggles.
Until, suddenly, they were here. On my face. After years of promises Magic Leap has dropped its first headset, the Magic Leap One, a $2,295 creator edition meant for developers – but a headset nonetheless. It was the moment of truth: Beyonce wasn't impressed… but would I be?
Magic Leap One: Design and comfort
Before we talk about the experience, let’s talk about the goggles themselves. Svelte specs these are not, but personally I find Magic Leap’s goggles less ridiculous than most other AR and VR headsets I’ve strapped to my head. Okay, they look a little ridiculous, but not that ridiculous. The headset is also pretty comfortable, but it takes time to get that right. The Leap comes in two sizes, and the goggles adjust to the size of your head – no twisties or pulleys to mess with – but I found they kept slipping down my face until I set the headband high enough to keep them in place.
Then there's the puck. When Magic Leap unveiled the design of its cyberpunk goggles late last year, there were a lot of raised eyebrows over the puck-shaped external device, which is meant to be clipped onto a pocket. But honestly, in practice, this minor inconvenience is worth it for the freedom it affords. Sure, it's a shame Magic Leap couldn't get everything on the face, but that day will come.
The third piece is the 6DoF controller, which looks a bit like the one you get with the Samsung Gear VR. There's a touchpad and a couple of buttons, and you'll mostly be waving it around to select, poke and drag things in your surrounding space. But there's also eye tracking and hand tracking in the Magic Leap One, so you don't need to rely on that controller all the time.
Magic Leap One: Playing with holograms
Magic Leap’s biggest compromise is clear the moment you put on the goggles: The 50-degree field of view is disappointingly small. Distractingly so, in fact, and though it is bigger than the one you get on HoloLens, I was always aware that everything was contained within a small rectangle in front of me. Remember that early promo shot of the whale breaching out of the floor of a school gymnasium? Now, do you also remember the first Google Glass teaser? You see where I'm going here. To say Magic Leap is a disappointment on the level of Glass would be untrue, but it's similarly a victim of unrealistic expectations.
That red box is what you're working with on the Magic Leap One
But what is there works well. The holograms themselves were vibrant and clear in my demo, though not noticeably more visceral than what we’ve seen before. Where Leap excels is in how it keeps these holograms anchored in place, even when there's a lot happening in the room. I never had an instance of a hologram jittering or shifting position, which is more than I can say for many other modern AR headsets I've tried.
But this doesn't just happen like magic. When I first put the headset on and tried to load an app, the goggles realised I was in an unfamiliar room and prompted me to "mesh" the space around me. To do this I had to look around the room for targets, which fed geometric data back to the headset. It was a gamified setup process that lasted five minutes, and once it was done I didn't have to calibrate again, even when I turned the Leap off and back on.
Back to those holograms. Magic Leap has a technology called 'light field', which projects images into your eyes in a way that allows you to focus on them at varying distances. This is where Magic Leap separates itself from Microsoft HoloLens, which fixes everything at an optical distance of around 2 metres. Why the difference? It comes down to vergence-accommodation, which is to do with how our eyes naturally adjust their optical focus depending on how far away an object is. But with VR and AR, there’s a screen in front of our eyes, so while we might try and focus on an object up close, our eyes know they’re looking at a display that’s further away. The result is blur, confusion and discomfort.
It’s a problem that VR is trying to fix, and Magic Leap’s answer for AR is Light Field, which changes how objects appear depending on the light rays in the room. This worked well as I moved about the space, still able to clearly see the dinosaur hologram I'd plonked down earlier; however there’s a limit on how close you can get to any hologram before it cuts away or, in some cases during my time with Magic Leap, appears to glitch.
Magic Leap One: The apps
There were several apps installed on the Leap to try: Tonandi, a musical AR app created with Sigur Ros; Create, a 3D art app similar to Google's Paintbrush; one game where I abducted aliens with a UFO that I… didn't really understand; and Gallery, which let me place photos and holograms around the room and leave them sat while I did other things.
Create was my favorite, as this is where I could really test the meshing I'd done. The room was my canvas, the controller my brush, as I squiggled red lines through the air and stamped motifs to the walls.
Magic Leap keeps talking about shifting the computing paradigm, and I think this is best demonstrated when you're running multiple apps around the room at once. For instance, I had a game running on one side of the room, while sifting through my photo library on the other. Magic Leap's also teamed up with the NBA for an app which lets you "stick" a screen to a wall while a 3D rendering of select moments plays out in front of it. It's a really cool idea, and one that I think best demonstrates the potential of this technology.
But as is usually the case, it's going to come down to what developers do with Magic Leap. That's why it only exists in this creator edition right now: Magic Leap wants people to get a feel for it and be inspired to create amazing things. Are apps even the best way to approach this new paradigm? I think that’s a valid question.
Some final thoughts about general comfort: At one point the goggles got really warm, and I do wonder if this could be a problem. Also worth mentioning, I played with the Magic Leap One for an hour and the battery was still going; Magic Leap says you can expect three hours of continuous use.
So did the Magic Leap One shatter my perception of reality? Sadly not. The best way I can sum up Magic Leap is that it’s a very refined of the AR we’ve seen so far, but it doesn’t feel like it’s in another category. The way CEO Rony Abovitz described his creation over the years had led us to believe this could be a leap ahead for AR, rather than just a polished version of everything we’d tried to date. But there's so much untapped potential here it's too early to give it any sort of verdict, not to mention that the consumer edition is still a way off. I'm still excited for Magic Leap, but more cautiously so.
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