Magic Leap One launch a mixed bag after years of promises

Magic Leap calls itself a “spatial computing” company, but it produces what most people call augmented or mixed reality experiences: hologram-like objects projected into three-dimensional space. Modern smartphones offer a primitive version of mixed reality, and headsets like Microsoft HoloLens offer a more advanced version for industrial and professional use.

CEO Rony Abovitz claimed that Magic Leap’s hardware will “transcend what can be contained in a physical product.” He announced the company with a 2012 TedX talk in which he donned a full space suit and spoke for 30 seconds. Today, he won’t even confirm it was him in the suit.

The Magic Leap One Creator Edition is aimed at artists and developers, but Abovitz stresses that it’s a “full-blown, working consumer-grade product,” not a prototype. AT&T will even offer demos to customers in some of its stores later this year. “We think it’s at the border of being practical for everybody,” says Abovitz. “Our whole thing with Magic Leap One is, we want people to realize this is what computing should look like — not [laptops], not TVs, not phones.”

The Magic Leap One is a three-piece system that includes a headset called Lightwear, a small wearable computer called the Lightpack, and a handheld controller.

Like every mixed reality company, Magic Leap eventually wants to make a normal-looking pair of glasses that can be worn everywhere. For now, the headset is only guaranteed to work indoors, and it includes Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas, but no mobile data options. AT&T has already committed to selling a future version with wireless data plans, though, and Abovitz says you can use the current version “at your own risk” outside.

Still, Magic Leap is one of the best (if not the best) pieces of mixed reality hardware on the market today. But after all of Magic Leap’s descriptions of its unique hyper-advanced light field technology, it didn’t feel categorically different from something like HoloLens — which was released two years ago, and has a second generation on the horizon. I’m not convinced Magic Leap’s photonics chip is practically that different from other mixed reality waveguides, or that Magic Leap is doing something other companies couldn’t replicate.

But instead of showcasing the strength of its possibilities, my Magic Leap One app demos kept highlighting the weaknesses of its technology. I could imagine replacing my television with a virtual screen, but not one that clips in half when I’m not staring straight at it. I kept forgetting where I’d placed small virtual objects in a room. Full-room experiences, like the beautiful underwater seascape of Tonandi, always felt clearly artificial. The issue wasn’t just technical limits, it was apps that didn’t seem designed to work well within those limits.

So unless Magic Leap is deliberately holding any big projects for a consumer release, I’m not sure what its internal studios and partners have been doing with several years and virtually unlimited funding, and why it wouldn’t showcase more of their work during the Magic Leap One’s big debut.

Why it’s hot

With nearly every big tech company making a play for mixed reality, it’s an area ready for disruption. Early adopters are ready for a big step forward, but at over $2.2k, it’s not clear that Magic Leap One will really meet that need for everyone. With the failure of Google Glass, what will it take for a mixed reality hardware to be widely adopted?

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