What Magic Leap One Tells Us About the Near-Future of AR Hardware

on January 5, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mega-funded startup Magic Leap recently unveiled its planned hardware developer kit, dubbed the Magic Leap One. The googly-eyed headset drew some unkind remarks for its looks, and some of the company’s comments surrounding it were vague at best and frustrating at worst. But the One does represent a well-financed company’s vision of where augmented reality hardware is heading in 2018, so a brief dissection of its design is illustrative of some of AR’s design challenges.

Three-Pieced Kit
The Magic Leap One consists of the head-mounted goggles (Lightwear), a tethered computer (Lightpack), and a controller (Control). The look of the Lightwear goggles might not win any fashion awards, but its where we’ve long expected Magic Leap to bring its AR special sauce to the market. Specifically, the company says its lightfield photonics “generate light at different depths and blend seamlessly with natural light to produce lifelike digital objects that coexist in the real world.” To do all of this, Lightwear must not only believably create those images, but it must anchor those objects in the real world. A digital representation of a flower vase is only believable if it stays locked to the real-world table upon which you place it. To do this, the headset has numerous cameras and sensors that point outward, capturing what is happening around the wearer. In addition to capturing the environment, these sensors also play a role in capturing what the user is doing, with their head, with their hands, and with their voice. Capturing this information is hard; processing it in real time is a very heavy computing lift.

Which is why I’m very happy to see that, at least for now, Magic Leap moved at least some of that processing off the headset and into the cable-tethered Lightpack. The company says the puck-sized device has processing and graphics power that’s comparable to a notebook computer. As I’ve been studying the AR market the last several years I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best AR experiences for the foreseeable future will require head-mounted displays that utilize computing power located off the headset. That processing may be from a purpose-built unit, as is the case here, or from a more general-purpose computing device, such as a smartphone. There are numerous reasons why this off-the-head computing is necessary, but the key ones include removing the battery weight from the headset, relocating the heat-producing CPU and GPUs away from the user’s face, and repositioning the various necessary radios such as LTE and WiFi away from the head. It will be some time before the industry can address these technical issues in a form factor that’s suitable for wearing on your face. In the meantime, it is best to move them elsewhere. (Indecently, I think this is how Apple’s predicted AR glasses would work, utilizing the processing power of the iPhone in your pocket).

Finally, there’s the Control navigation. The fact that Magic Leap plans to ship its first developer kit with a handheld controller is an acknowledgment that, at least for now, hand tracking isn’t sufficient for the experience the company is trying to create with its platform. Magic Leap says Control includes six degrees of freedom (comparable to the best tethered VR setups today), as well as haptic feedback. Adding the controller to the mix increases the amount of user-interface data the setup can capture, so while holding a controller may seem initially counterintuitive to an immersive experience, it may well bring substantial benefits to the table. The one rub is in commercial use cases where the employee needs both hands to work, but that’s likely not the use case Magic Leap is targeting out of the gate with this product.

By utilizing three different devices, spread around the body, Magic Leap can disperse design challenges such as weight and heat while maximizing the ability to include all the necessary sensors, processors, and batteries. One hopes that the result is a singular cohesive experience.

Artisanal Spatial Computing
Magic Leap unveiled the One on its website and through an in-depth article by Brian Crecente on Rolling Stone’s gaming site Glixel that’s well worth the read. The company hasn’t announced a ship date or price but claims it will ship sometime in 2018. Pushed on price, Magic Leap’s founder Rony Abovitz said, “I would say we are more of a premium computing system. We are more of a premium artisanal computer.” I’m not sure what that means, but I’m guessing it’s not cheap.

In a follow-up piece, Abovitz had this to say about what to call Magic Leap’s technology: “Personally I don’t like the terms AR, VR or MR for us, so we’re calling our computers a spatial computer and our visualization a digital light field because that’s probably the most accurate description of what we do. The other terms are totally corrupted.” While I can appreciate Abovitz’s comments here, I find this line of reasoning problematic for the same reason that I continue to find Microsoft’s use of Mixed Reality instead of Augmented Reality frustrating. As an industry, at some point, we must agree on what to call things. Otherwise, it is very hard to measure a market, drive growth, and facilitate standards.

Pricing, ship dates, and naming discussions aside, what Magic Leap introduced with the One certainly looks promising. And, as noted, this a developer kit, designed to get programmers working on content for the company’s forthcoming platform. I eagerly await the opportunity to try out the hardware and look forward to seeing how this reveal impacts the decision of other AR-focused companies.