Magic Leap is the new Florida-based company developing a very buzzed-about augmented-reality device of the same name. The Magic Leap will integrate realistic three-dimensional images and animations with the user’s real, observed world. There is no release date yet for the product, and the company has not indicated when it might appear in consumer hands. Magic Leap was the first company to publicly announce plans for advanced augmented reality (a substantial “leap” over devices like Google Glass), but we still know relatively few specifics about what the company plans for the device. Despite the secrecy, some major investors have poured huge amounts of money into the project, including a Google investment of $542 million.
Most of what is known about the technical aspects of the device come from Magic Leap patent filings, which industry writers have mined for info and summarized in trade publications. At the time of writing, the patent application remains the only source of a sketch of what a Magic Leap prototype might look like. Currently, questions about the functionality of the Magic Leap may be best answered by the debut of its only major competitor—the Microsoft Hololens. Microsoft’s device has already been demonstrated for the public, providing the only direct window into advanced augmented reality applications—gaming, education, video viewing, and exploration—yet available.
Most VR and augmented reality devices rely on stereoscopic 3D technology, which has been around for ages and can cause disorientation and nausea in its users even despite recent improvements. Both the Hololens and Magic Leap, however, have developed new methods. The Hololens creates the illusion of three-dimensional images inside a pair of lenses, and Magic Leap will use a fiber optic projector to beam digital light fields directly onto the user’s retinas. The Magic Leap’s complex software will map the user’s own position and eye movement and mix in digital light field technology to make the projected objects appear to exist in external reality.
Magic Leap’s use of light beamed directly onto retinas presumably solves the problem of limited range of projection, which may give it a boost over the Hololens’ capabilities. Users of the Hololens are limited to a 120 degree by 120 degree field of operation because the image creation is restricted to the lens field of the glasses. Rachel Metz of the MIT Technology Review seemed to confirm as much in her experience comparing demos of the two devices, describing the Hololens’ inability to mask her peripheral vision as a major detractor to the realism of the images.
One key component of Magic Leap will be the use of “totems.” Totems can be any physical object that the programming designates as such; for example, a block of wood could act as a mouse. An object specifically manufactured for the Magic Leap might be a rubber keyboard onto which the device projects typeface characters. Gesture-based controls like pinching will also be integrated.
Magic Leap is also developing proprietary “sensorywear.” Sensorywear will comprise the head-mounted display and peripherals, which include gloves that can provide tactile feedback. There are images of wearable tech in the patent filings as well, including watches and rings that may interface with the device.
The level to which developers have access to Magic Leap is unclear, although the design software has likely not yet been released. The official Magic Leap website has a cryptic message to developers about the “tight-lipped” status of the project; it invites interested parties to fill out a form and wait to hear back from the company.
Magic Leap has also not released a list of compatible platforms for the device (or whether it will be a stand-alone computer). Also unclear is whether Magic Leap will be intended for in-home/office use (like the Hololens) or use in the everyday outside world (like Google Glass).