August 12, 2018

Magic Leap’s headset is real, but that may not be cheap

After US$2.3 billion in funding from the likes of Google, JPMorgan, and Alibaba, and years of outlandish hype, startup Magic Leap is finally revealing its mysterious, futuristic mixed reality (MR) device – Magic Leap One.
The headset/computer/controller is the first step in Magic Leap's plan to replace your smartphone, your TV, and your computer. The idea is simple: instead of having a bunch of disparate computing devices across various screens, you'll wear your computer on your eyes.
Magic Leap’s headset is real, but that may not be cheap

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Forget about looking down at your phone to check email – the promise of mixed reality headsets like Magic Leap One and Microsoft's HoloLens is overlaying your digital life onto your real life. You could pull up your email in a floating window, while another floating window plays an NBA game, all while still interacting with human beings either via video conference or in the real world.

Announced last week, Magic Leap’s first product is now available for purchase. But the average computer user isn’t about to rush out and buy it. The Magic Leap One Creator Edition is being marketed to “developers and creators” at a retail price of US$2,295. It’s currently available online only in six US cities.

The package comes with software and a headset that lets users add layers of computer-generated images and applications to the world around them. It also includes a web browser and a social platform to connect with other Magic Leap users.

Magic Leap is one of the most richly funded start-ups in the field of “augmented reality”, but Magic Leap’s chief product officer, Omar Khan, prefers the term “spatial computing”.

One early application shipping with the device is called Create, which enables people to virtually change the world around them – at least through the lenses of Magic Leap One.

“I love the colour purple, I'm wearing purple today, and I may choose to put a purple hue on the world that I interact with,” says Khan. “I can say I want to turn every mug into a vase and I can start to put flowers and cups around my room and around the physical spaces that I interact with.

“The spatial browser is an important part of launch from a Creator Edition perspective, there's communications, social, a lot of aspects to what we're launching.”

There's also a lot of advanced technology in the system: it runs off an Nvidia Parker processor, which includes 6 ARM cores. Its GPU is an Nvidia Pascal with 256 cores. It's also got 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of built-in storage, of which about 33GB is reserved for the operating system. For connectivity, the device can connect to Bluetooth and Wi-fi. There isn't a cellular connection available on Magic Leap One.

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All of that computing power needs electricity, and the rechargeable battery lasts for “up to 3 hours continuous use”, according to Magic Leap. “Power level will be sustained when connected to an AC outlet.”

Hype aside, whether Magic Leap One actually accomplishes what it aims to is another question. A handful of press outlets were recently invited to the company’s headquarters to try out Magic Leap One and the feedback so far has been mixed.

The Verge’s Adi Robertson had positive things to say about the new product, but those came with a lot of caveats. In her experience with the headset, she was shown a digital dinosaur that was only visible to her.

“The whimsical anecdote set-up is supposed to emphasise how well the Magic Leap One tricked my mind into believing this impossible thing existed, which is what I’d hoped would happen last month when Magic Leap invited me to its headquarters,” Robertson says. “But it just didn’t happen.

“In reality, the dinosaur I see through the Magic Leap One looks genuinely three-dimensional, but pieces start getting cut off when I approach it. When a man walks behind it, I can see him slightly.

“The headset looks far from utilitarian – it’s like something a hacker would wear in a Shadowrun [live-action role-playing game]. But against all odds, it’s surprisingly comfortable.”

CNET’s Scott Stein believed Magic Leap was a familiar stepping-stone more than a revolution.

“This isn't made for everyday customers yet,” he says.

Like other members of the media who got to try Magic Leap One, Stein takes issue with the headset's field of view. Simply put: if you’re not looking directly through the relatively limited digital window in the Magic Leap One headset, you don't actually see the digital world being presented on top of the real one.

“The display's small field of view doesn't cover everything you see in the room,” Stein says. “Not being able to see a fuller view of the room's virtual objects is a serious drawback. Sometimes I lose track of things I can’t see, and require sound to help me track where the augmented things are hiding, and where to turn.”

Wired’s Jessi Hempel was more forgiving. “A main menu popped up in front of me, the field of view large enough that it didn’t seem narrow,” he says. “But as great as this was, there were glitches. When I tried to use the hand controller to navigate to a football demo, the controller didn’t respond; the experience appeared frozen.”

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Those issues, once rectified, led to a positive experience. Once the headset was working, the experiences were creative and compelling,” Hempel says. “The images were crisp and solid – as solid as virtual reality can be, anyway.”

That said, Hempel compares the experiences to the often shallow experiences found on other virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality devices. “These experiences are certainly on par with other augmented reality and virtual reality demos I have seen,” he says. “Are they really mind-blowingly better than the competition? Not yet.”

Meanwhile, Magic Leap founder and chief executive Rony Abovitz hails the announcement’s importance for Florida, where the company is based. The US state has pledged more than US$8 million in subsidies to support the company.

At last year’s eMerge America’s conference on Miami Beach, Abovitz said there were now approximately 800 Magic Leap employees in South Florida. The company’s website still lists dozens of openings. With its numerous venture funding rounds totaling billions, the company, founded in 2010, became South Florida’s most buzzed-about start-up of the decade.

“Florida has always been a blank canvas for innovation, and we hope to be one small part of that incredible story,” he said in a statement. “Our launch of Magic Leap One Creator Edition begins the next chapter of our journey to empower creators in Florida, the US, and around the world.”

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Magic Leap’s viability had been questioned by observers after the company experienced delays and lawsuits, including sexual harassment and trade secrets complaints, and a negative review by pop star Beyonce, who reportedly found the version she tested “boring” after she got a sneak peak last winter.

In an interview with Wired, Abovitz said he regretted the hype that led up to the product roll-out. “I think we were arrogant,” he said.

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