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Leap Into the Future?

By Logan Kugler

November 11, 2014

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Dania Beach, FL-based Magic Leap plays its cards close to the vest. Almost every news story calls the company "secretive" or "mysterious" on first mention. Visitors to the company’s website can view a video of elephants flying out of someone's hands and still images of scenes like a little girl watching a tiny ballerina on her bed.

People who have seen the product, which is assumed to be some kind of mobile, wearable augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) device, speak of it in unreservedly glowing terms. Thomas Tull, CEO of media company Legendary Pictures, told The Wall Street Journal the experience was "jaw-dropping." Richard Taylor, a member of Magic Leap's board of directors and co-founder of special effects shop Weta Workshop, said in a press release that it was like "a rocket ship for the mind."

Whatever the product is, it is enough to have recently brought the company more than $500 million in funding from a group of companies led by Google. Coming just a year after Facebook bought Oculus VR (maker of the Oculus Rift VR headset) for $2 billion, that investment shows the commercial potential companies see in AR and VR. Still, other products in the space have already tested the market and failed; what's so special about this one?

Natural depth perception

According to Gordon Wetzstein, an assistant professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at Stanford University and a former research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Magic Leap may well have solved the big problem limiting AR systems up to now: a natural presentation of depth. "In the real world, we can focus our eyes at different distances," Wetzstein explains. "If we focus on one plane, all the remaining depth is out of focus." Our brain uses such cues, along with stereoscopic vision, to infer depth, he says, "but that's something that's not really supported by any existing 3D display. I believe Magic Leap has cracked this."

Current AR displays, such as Google Glass, overlay information on one’s visual field, but that is all in one plane. Something that is supposed to be further away can be shown smaller, but your eye does not actually change its focus to perceive it. "Imagine you're playing a game in which characters are being presented as though they're in the real world," Wetzstein explains. "If a character is very far away, you should be able to focus your eye very far away to see that character." The inability to do that—the fact that everything is on the same plane—creates nausea and fatigue in viewers, and is one of the reasons other AR and VR devices have not become as popular as they could have been.

Actually, says Quinn Martin, a lead engineer at 3D modeling company Paracosm, "Magic Leap's been careful to distance themselves from the term 'augmented reality.' In the past, it's been associated with a lot of hype, and very little substance or useful application. The technical limitations that we're moving past are what have prevented AR from being compelling and ubiquitous."

So is the product likely to be a headset like the Oculus Rift, something more like Google Glass, or another thing entirely? "I think they can make something that's actually smaller than Google Glass," says Wetzstein. "I would speculate that they have very thin light guides that can be much bigger, so you can have a larger image in a very slim form factor."

Wetzstein suspects Magic Leap’s device doesn't simply display images, but processes them as well. "They have some of the best computer vision experts in the world, who've been able to put a lot of computer vision algorithms on mobile devices already," he says, and suggests that they will provide compelling, practical use cases that will support the device's adoption. "Let's say I travel to Japan and I'm not able to read Japanese. If I had a display integrated into my glasses that could, in real time, translate all the text—that would be amazing."

Martin also sees some immediate applications that could help the device attract consumers. "The possibilities for games, shopping, and navigation seem ripe for early adoption," he says. Further down the road, Martin suggests, lies a wide range of other possibilities. "What happens when we start using augmented displays at work? When we use them for coding, fire-fighting, manufacturing, cooking, interacting with our robot friends..."

One thing we can be certain of: something about Magic Leap sparks people's imaginations.

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa FL. He has written for over 60 major publications.

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