Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Magic Leap Into Augmented Reality?

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Over the years in RapidGroove, I've thought and written about Google Glass, Oculus Rift, and a number of other Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality products and possibilities. During the last few years, the not-yet-a-product that may have most captured the imagination is Magic Leap. We may now be finally getting a peak and a promise of a Magic Leap product in the coming year.

Let's back up a bit and review terms. Virtual Reality (VR) immerses a user in a simulation of a real or imagined world, shutting out the real world. This is generally done through strapped-on goggles that have an integrated display (or sometimes leveraging your smart phone). The display replaces your view of the world around you. Sometimes the experience is extended through the addition of audio via headphones. Oculus Rift and HTCVive are examples of consumer technologies that deliver VR.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that layers computer-generated elements, such as graphical objects or text, over existing reality in order to extend the experience or deliver additional information. As with VR, AR can be delivered through strapped-on headsets. Rather than eliminating the world around you, though, AR superimposes graphics or text onto the objects in the real world that you can see. Google Glass was an early example of consumer technology that delivers AR.

The next level of consumer AR may come from Magic Leap via the Magic Leap One. The secretive company has been the talk of the industry for some time as a result of some amazing concept videos showing whales sounding from a high school gym floor and tiny elephants walking around in cupped hands. The mix of real with realistic-but-computer-generated in these concept videos has been compelling. But when no actual product was forthcoming for several years despite huge investments and the passage of time, and given that very few had seen any of the company's work first hand, some began to wonder whether any real product would ever be delivered. Then in mid-December of 2017, announcement began to appear. Magic Leap One would ship in 2018. Details are still few, and an exact date has not yet been announced as of this writing, but we do seem to be getting closer to seeing an actual product.

Magic Leap One seems to involve four elements. First, there is a set of goggles through which the user sees the real world and also sees the augmented elements. Second, there is the “Lightpack,” which is a small round computer strapped to the user and providing most of the computational power. Third, there is a handheld controller to allow manual interaction. And finally, there is the Magic Leap software that ties all of this together and makes the augmented experience possible.

Given the intense computation and communication work it takes to render virtual objects in the field of view and anchor them to real world objects, most skeptics have pointed to computational capacity, communications latency, and battery life as significant challenges. Lag in VR can cause some people to experience a sick feeling, and in AR it can take away from the strength of the experience and the realism of the augmented elements. When Magic Leap One was demonstrated to Rolling Stone reporters a few weeks ago, however, they reported very good performance.

The history of personal computing, including modern mobile devices, involves users tied to screens of various sizes. The promise of the kind of AR that Magic Leap One seeks to deliver is a future without such physical screens. Virtual screens can appear anywhere, floating in space or following us or other objects around. There can be as many or as few as we want or need. And rendered information can go well beyond flat virtual screens since it can appear to be three dimensional (virtual people, animals, objects) and can co-exist with the real world around us.

What's this stuff good for? Gaming seems like a natural, of course, but how about other uses such as social interaction, education, and business collaboration? The applications seem endless. 

Is 2018 finally the time when compelling AR becomes available to consumers? Magic Leap has broken promises before, but I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that this time they can really deliver in the very near future.

What AR applications would prompt you to invest $1500 or $2000 (a wild guess at the entry level cost) into a system like this? Leave a comment and let us know.


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