Magic Leap’s glasses were meant to lead us into the age of augmented reality, a world beyond screens where we could interact with digital objects as if they were standing right next to us. Too bad they failed spectacularly. By early 2020, the company had raised nearly $2 billion. But other than a few flashy demos and wild art projects, there wasn’t much reason for its target audience of developers and creators to buy a $2,295 headset. Like Google Glass before it, Magic Leap felt like a false start for AR, a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
But the company is not yet dead. With a new CEO on board – former Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson – he’s aiming for something much more practical: augmented reality for the enterprise. It may seem like a retread of the HoloLens playbook, which has been focused on business customers for years, but Magic Leap has a chance to give Microsoft some serious competition with its second-generation AR glasses.
The $3,299 Magic Leap 2 (ML2), which launched in September, is easier to wear, significantly more powerful, and has a considerably larger (and larger) AR field of view than any headset we’ve seen. previously. It has the unique ability to darken its display, allowing you to block out light and focus more on virtual objects. And it should be easier for developers to work with, thanks to a new Android-based operating system. While it’s still unclear if the company’s new business plan will bear fruit, ML2 remains a significant achievement, especially now that Meta is also stepping into AR-like territory with the Quest Pro. at $1,500.
In a Twitter chat with Engadget, Magic Leap founder and former CEO Rony Abovitz said the company always takes a two-pronged approach for consumers and business customers. He also noted that the new headset was being developed with an enterprise focus ahead of the launch of Magic Leap 1 Creator Edition in 2018. While Abovitz won’t disclose specific sales figures, he says the company’s damning sales report selling only 6,000 the helmets were also completely “manufactured”.
“It’s been a long struggle,” Kevin Curtis, Magic Leap senior vice president and hardware manager, said in an interview with Engadget. “When we came out of ML1, we learned a huge amount… Not just technically, but also from a market perspective. So that was really used to set the targets for ML2.”
Some of these goals seemed impossible at the time. The company wanted to double the field of view (FOV) – the amount of screen area where you can actually see AR objects – as well as cut the volume of the device in half. These moves would make his sequel headset even more immersive, while too being more comfortable for extended wear. According to Curtis, increasing the field of view from 50 degrees to 70 degrees with the ML1’s projector and eyepiece technology would have required carrying something as large as an open hand. It’s not exactly doable all day.
Magic Leap spent years exploring existing forms of projection, including laser scanning-based systems, uLED arrays, and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon), but found them all lacking. Instead, it developed its own custom architecture, which uses LCoS with RGB LED lighting modules and a complex system of concentrators and polarizers to bring images to your eyes. It works with a new eyepiece design to achieve its high 70 degree field of view.
But what does that really mean? The Magic Leap 1 headset featured a 50-degree FOV, which made it look like you were watching augmented reality through the cramped rear window of a car. (That was comparable to HoloLens 2’s 52 degrees of viewing.) With Magic Leap 2, the company achieved a 70-degree field of view by increasing the vertical viewing area, letting you see larger objects without moving your head. head up and down. During my brief demo, I felt more like I was standing in front of an open door.
It’s more like how you see things in real life, according to Curtis, and it goes a long way to convincing you that the AR objects you’re seeing are real. I’ve tried a wide variety of headsets over the years (including the now defunct entry from startup Meta, which was around long before Facebook’s renaming), and the Magic Leap 2 is the first to offer a real sense of presence. Whether I was looking at large medical equipment or a vast 3D model of downtown San Diego, I had to strain to see the edges. It was almost aggressively immersive.
The new projection technology also helped Magic Leap achieve its goal of more than halving the volume of ML2, resulting in a 20% weight reduction (it weighs just 260 grams, or just over half a book). The result is a pair of AR glasses that look more like, well, eyeglasses. While the original helmet looked like a pair of huge ski goggles, the ML2 has flatter lenses and slimmer arms, making you look less like a bug-eyed idiot and more like an engineer. or a surgeon preparing for a big project. (It’s no wonder Magic Leap has given healthcare startups a head start with access to its new hardware and software.)
All of this custom development will also help Magic Leap deliver better headsets down the line. The company says its eventual Magic Leap 3 goggles, which don’t yet have a release date, will lose another 50% in volume and offer a wider field of vision. The technology can potentially be scaled beyond 80 degrees, allowing you to view a building-sized object unhindered by any AR limitations.
When I first started demonstrating the Magic Leap 2 in a well-lit hotel meeting room, it was mostly what I expected: a more comfortable, higher-quality version of its predecessor. But at some point I pressed a button and the screen began to darken, as if a cloud of shadow erased the sickly fluorescent lights above me. I had enabled the headset’s global dimmer, which dims the real world to better highlight virtual objects. The result is an almost VR experience. The virtual map I was looking at, which showed how first responders were dealing with wildfires in Colorado, suddenly looked sharper and more colorful. I wasn’t distracted by the boring meeting desk in front of me, or the occasional passerby passing by.
Every AR solution adds light, Curtis explained, what’s unique about ML2 is that it’s able to add the color black. The dimmer module is another screen that sits in front of the headset eyepiece, allowing it to dim the light across the entire screen, or in specific areas, by a factor of 100. This will allow you to use ML2 in brightly lit rooms, or even outdoors on a sunny day, without AR images looking washed out. Developers can also use Dimmer to add shadows to their objects, giving you an extra layer of AR depth.
As Magic Leap worked to make augmented reality more like virtual reality, Meta was also doubling down on bringing the real world into virtual reality with the Quest Pro. With new cameras and upgraded hardware, Meta offers this headset as a way to integrate VR elements into your typical workflow (just imagine watching VR windows dance above your computer screen portable). Based on my time with the Quest Pro so far, it’s not something I really want very much. The cameras aren’t good enough yet. But it’s funny to see Meta tackling a Magic Leap-like problem from another angle. Somewhere between these two headsets is the ideal balance between the immersion of virtual reality and the integration of AR into the real world.
I was so distracted by the Magic Leap 2’s expanded field of view and dimming capabilities that I barely noticed its controller was any more ergonomic. And I didn’t think much of the headset’s IT pack, which can now be worn across your body like a messenger bag. Naturally, it has faster hardware inside (specifically, a quad-core AMD Zen 2 CPU and RDNA 2 graphics). But my main conclusion, after years of AR and VR testing, and the seemingly endless drumbeat of metaverse hype from an increasingly desperate Mark Zuckerberg, is that it’s nice to be genuinely surprised by a new helmet.
But of course technology alone will not make a successful product. Magic Leap isn’t targeting the ML2 at consumers at all, but rather at doctors who may want a little AR assistance during surgery, or engineers who want to view schematics when standing in front of complex machinery.
“I think it’s improved a lot, [Magic Leap is a] different company,” Chief Marketing Officer Daniel Diez said when I asked about the status of Magic Leap today. Amid dismal sales of his first headset and increasingly dire financials, founder and CEO Rony Abovitz left in 2020. But now, thanks to over $1 billion in additional funding and a new leader in Peggy Johnson, he has another chance in the AR market.
At the very least, it’s clear that the Metaverse isn’t a problem Meta can solve on its own. Magic Leap is one of the few established competitors, making it a company still worth watching. And if the company’s game doesn’t work out, there’s a chance that a big company like Google (one of its early investors) could have some use for all that AR tech.
“Magic Leap One, Creator Edition was aimed at developers and partners – to allow them to explore many use cases and markets – so that we could get feedback and have data to support markets that would grow more sooner and sooner,” Abovitz told Engadget on Twitter, while saying it was wrong to call the previous headset a failure. “He was very successful at that – which was his mission. It was our Mercury, ML2 is Gemini, and I hope Peggy launches the Apollo one day :).”
Update 11/11, 2:45 p.m.: Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz provided additional comments regarding the development of ML2 and early efforts to target enterprise customers.
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