Is Magic Leap the Most Overhyped Company in Augmented Reality?

In a live stream, secretive augmented-reality hardware company Magic Leap pulled back the curtain a bit on its One AR headset. Has the company lived up to the hype yet?
The Magic Leap One consists of a Lightpack control and processing unit (left), glasses (center), and a 6DoF controller (right). (Image source: Magic Leap)

In the augmented and mixed reality space, Magic Leap is the company everyone talks about, but no one knows anything about. The secretive startup racked up big funds from high-profile backers like Google and Alibaba with the promise that it was creating hardware that would deliver a level of immersion in augmented reality (AR) that had not been achieved.

In a June 6 livestream on Twitch, Magic Leap unveiled a few more details about its flagship system, the Magic Leap One—discussing many of the device's features, but keeping mum on the juicier technical details.

Shanna De Iuliis, lead technical marketing manager at Magic Leap, sat down with Alan Noon, senior learning resources technical artist at Magic Leap, to give an overview of the Magic Leap One. What they revealed is a system that looks on par to compete with similar offerings, such as Microsoft's Hololens. But there's no indication of the breakthrough innovation that made Magic Leap such a buzzed-about company.

New Innovation? Or More of the Same?

Alan Noon (right) interviews Shanna De Iuliis (left), who wears the full Magic Leap One system. (Image soure: Magic Leap)

De Iuliis described the Magic Leap One as a “spatial computer,” capable of tracking its external environment—and layering virtual objects within it—with a sense of scale as well as persistence (if you leave a room and come back, a virtual object will be where you left it, just like a real one). The major function Magic Leap is pushing at this point is the Magic Leap One's use of “light field” technology, which allows it to mimic the way light reflects off of real objects. Done correctly, this could add even more detail and realism to the AR experience by having virtual objects respond to real-world light.

The Magic Leap One consists of three components: the Lightwear glasses; the LightPack, a body-worn unit that handles all of the processing; and a controller.

The Lightwear features an array of cameras and sensors for environment tracking and other purposes. The headset will give wearers six degree of freedom (6DoF) movement and allow for recording of audio and video. The headset also features a set of eye facing cameras to enable eye tracking for control functions as well as tracking focus. Implemented alongside foveated rendering, this could allow Magic Leap One to render virtual objects with realistic sharpness and blur, depending on where you're looking and where the object appears in your field of vision.

The headset also allows for spatial audio. Rather than a pair of earbuds or headphones (though it allows for the option for these), the Lightwear features an array of speakers around the inside of the headband to allow for 3D audio. This means audio will come from the direction of the sound source. If something is behind you, it will sound like it is behind you, for example.

The Lightpack is the most interesting and, because of that, probably the most secretive aspect of the Magic Leap One. The small unit clips to your pants (not your belt, De Iuliis warned) and handles all of the processing for the unit, connecting to the Lightwear via cables.

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In a blow to the more visually impaired among us, De Iuliis said it is not recommended that users wear the Magic Leap One with prescription lenses on. However, she did say the company is working with partners to develop corrective lens attachments for the headset.

When asked by live stream viewers, De Iuliis and Noon refused to disclose any technical specs on the Lightpack beyond its ergonomics. De Iuliis did offer that the LightPack features a USB-C connector for connecting peripherals and uploading developer content. She also mentioned that the device is WiFi and Bluetooth enabled. Noon said users will have to wait for a later date to find out about the features that developers are really curious about, such as field of view, processor power, pixel count, weight, and of course, battery life. (De Iuliis said battery life would last several hours, depending on the application, but declined to give a hard number.)

If you think back to HP's backpack form factor workstation designed to deliver VR content, the fact that Magic Leap has been able to compress AR functionality into a unit small enough to fit on your pocket is an impressive feat. It's worth noting, though, that the Hololens is fully standalone with no external processing unit required. Magic Leap's engineers may have forgone this option in favor of creating a lighter, more comfortable headset.

The Magic Leap One controller isn't worth discussing much at this point. Based on the live stream, it appears to offer the same touchpad, point-and-click functionality as controllers for VR headsets like the Oculus Go and Lenovo Mirage Solo. However, similar to Microsoft's Hololens, Magic Leap One will allow for hand gesture control, which opens up a lot more functionality. While it only functions with an expanding library of preset gestures (i.e., flex your finger to “click” on an object), it doesn't seem to offer the same sort of robustness and variety seen with hand gesture controllers like the Leap Motion controller.

De Iuliis said Magic Leap will be constantly expanding its library of gestures for developers, so it is possible that Magic Leap One could achieve fidelity close to or matching that of working with real world objects someday. Factoring in the eye tracking capability and the headset's ability to understand “head pose” (using head position to trigger content in an environment), it's easy to imagine Magic Leap One content having a strong depth of interaction.

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