Mysterious Magic Leap milestones

We just achieved a number of major product dev milestones; things are full on exciting @magicleap 

– Rony Abovitz

 

 

Slow news is the norm when it comes to Magic Leap but we are in a particularly deep drought these days. Hopefully the floodgates are closer to opening as Magic Leap appears to have hit another milestone. Of course we don’t know what that milestone is but we cling to whatever news we get these days.

That elusive Magic Leap release date

I suspect Magic Leap is planning to launch their first product next fall/winter.  The evidence for this is shaky but I don’t think it is an unreasonable guess. We know they are going to show us more “soon-ish“.  While that could mean anything I hope means within ~1 year. We also hear rumours about Magic Leap being involved in the film “Ready Player One” which premieres early 2018 pinning that as the latest date for Magic Leap to release. They are at the stage of doing experimental production runs and are actively debugging their production line. They are hiring people to test development kitsdesign packagingmanage FCC compliance among many other positions that are all required towards the later stages of product development. This all points towards a plan to release late next year. But plans are just that. Plans.

I suspect Magic Leap is planning to launch their first product next fall/winter.  The evidence for this is shaky but I don’t think it is an unreasonable guess. We know they are going to show us more “soon-ish“.  While that could mean anything I hope means within ~1 year. We also hear rumours about Magic Leap being involved in the film “Ready Player One” which premieres early 2018 pinning that as the latest date for Magic Leap to release. They are at the stage of doing experimental production runs and are actively debugging their production line. They are hiring people to test development kits, design packaging, manage FCC compliance among many other positions that are all required towards the later stages of product development. This all points towards a plan to release late next year. But plans are just that. Plans.

No one knows when Magic Leap is going to release their first product. No one. Not even Magic Leap. They have a timeline likely of next fall but the complexity of what they are building means that delays are inevitable.  Not just ‘we under estimated the amount of time it would take‘ delays but ‘fundamental assumptions that we made are not working out‘ sort of delays. These are the sorts of delays that you only get when toying with brand new ideas and technology. These are the delays that put you back an entire year. This is the reason it takes so long to make new things.  It is why most companies don’t bother.

 When will we be playing this?
When will we be playing this?

We should expect these sorts of problems from Magic Leap.  There are troubling indications that they have already hit some road blocks. There are some less favourable Glassdoor reviews out there that point to a company hitting growing pains.  (To be fair, glassdoor is not the best source for these sorts of things.  If someone is let go they might just be feeling a bit salty.) Further, a legal dispute such as the one between Magic Leap and  Gary Bradski is never a good sign. We have also seen a number of employees leaving Magic Leap recently though as the company matures employee turn over should be expected.  

None of these problems point towards disaster.  In fact, they seem pretty typical for a fast growing company.  But they can lead to distractions and delays.  So while I think Rony Abovitz wants his first product to hit store shelves next fall there is a good chance we will be waiting until 2018 before we see what is really going on behind those closed doors.  

When do you think Magic Leap will launch
First Half 2017
Second Half 2017
First Half 2018
Second Half 2018
2019
2020
Never

Focus on content: Neal Stephenson is running a content studio in Seattle

Everyone knows new products need new content. From television to smartphones to video games it doesn’t matter if you build the best technology, you need the best content to go along with it. Neal Stephenson, Magic Leaps “Chief Futurist”, has set up a content studio in his home town of Seattle, Washington to help solve this problem for Magic Leap.

“Content is king” 

“The name of the game is the game” 

Everyone knows new products need new content. From television to smartphones to video games it doesn’t matter if you build the best technology, you need the best content to go along with it. Neal Stephenson, Magic Leaps “Chief Futurist”, has set up a content studio in his home town of Seattle, Washington to help solve this problem for Magic Leap.  Stephenson is, of course, a highly acclaimed science fiction writers but he also has some experience in generating digital content. In an unfortunately failed kickstarter project, Stephenson tried to produce a sword fighting video game called Clang.  While the project ultimately failed, the lessons learned in the course of development will be good experience for Stephenson in this endeavour.  

 A screenshot from Stephenson's failed Clang project. Does this mean sword fighting in Magic Leap? That is probably a good bet.
A screenshot from Stephenson’s failed Clang project. Does this mean sword fighting in Magic Leap? That is probably a good bet.

This studio along with many other around the world, such as Weta Workshops in New Zealand and ILMxLab in California, imply that magic leap is taking on the content challenge head on.  They might even have more studios working on content then they do technology.  This is quite a departure from the other major tech companies who typically build the hardware and software while allowing independent studios to fill in the content holes.  

I find this both encouraging and worrying.  The ambitions of Magic Leap are already higher than any start-up, perhaps ever. Is the building of content going to be a further distraction for building the next generation computing platform? or is this level of integration just a deeper dive in to Apples successful strategy?  We’ll find out soon enough.

For a “Really Bad Idea” Oculus shares a lot of the same goals as Magic Leap

Last week the Chief Scientist at Oculus, Michael Abrash, laid out his vision for the future of VR. In his presentation he lays out a number of key technologies that are required to be able to fulfil this dream and gave a speculative time line of 5 years to accomplish many of the things he laid out. Encouragingly, most everything he said is something we know Magic Leap is working on from their patent applications, video releases and job posting. Seeing another company working in a similar space layout a roadmap that aligns so closely to what we presume Magic Leap is building gives credence to Magic Leaps ideas and ambitions.  Let’s look at some of these technologies.

Last week the Chief Scientist at Oculus, Michael Abrash, laid out his vision for the future of VR. In his presentation he lays out a number of key technologies that are required to be able to fulfil this dream and gave a speculative time line of 5 years to accomplish many of the things he laid out. Encouragingly, most everything he said is something we know Magic Leap is working on from their patent applications, video releases and job posting. Seeing another company working in a similar space layout a roadmap that aligns so closely to what we presume Magic Leap is building gives credence to Magic Leaps ideas and ambitions.  Let’s look at some of these technologies.

Optics And Displays

Abrash explains the need to improve the optical performance of the headset by leaps and bounds.  Features such as field of view, pixel density and variable focus are the core elements of these improvements.  All of these features figure prominently in patents released by Magic Leap and are supposed to be core improvements of the Magic Leap product over the competition. It is clear that variable focus is the main foundation of Magic Leap and, while nothing is certain, the resolution and field of view of the Magic Leap device are reported to be far superior to what we have seen before in similar form factors.

One of the key differences here is the angle in which these goals are approached by both companies.  Oculus is clearly gaming focused and their products are primarily built as a means towards that end. They are clearly shifting focus to a broader range of applications but the DNA of the company lives with gaming in mind.  As with much of the company, the core focus of Magic Leap is hard to pin down but everything we have seen points to a fundamental broader ambition than just gaming. The company is built on ground level research in to optics and display technology and it is the closest thing to their core competence that we can point to today.

Graphics and Eye Tracking

As Abrash points out, eye tracking and foveated rendering is the key to improving graphics in head mounted displays. We have seen in many Magic Leap patents that eye tracking is vital to their product. Unfortunately, Abrash is not optimistic about the technology calling it “the greatest single risk factor for my predictions” and “tracking at the level required for foveated rendering is not a solved problem at all”. This might be a harsh dose of reality for Magic Leap hopefuls. Personally, I had the impression that this was a solved problem or at least that the challenges were trackable. It looks like it will be another in a long set of challenges Magic Leap will have to overcome.  However, in this case, they might have some help.

There are rumours out there that Magic Leap is working with Eyefluence. They have shown off impressive eye tracking in a form factor similar to what Magic Leap is aiming for. If this is good enough for Foveated rendering remains to be seen.

Audio 

I honestly cannot work up much excitement for the audio aspects of these products and from the sounds of it neither can Abrash. That isn’t to say it should be ignored but the problems involved are not as complex as in some other areas. Companies will get this right and the experience will improve.  I think these improvements will be more incremental then revolutionary.

Interaction

Abrash sees the future of interaction that relies heavily on handheld controller devices.  This lines up with Magic Leaps reference to totems and tracking technologies such as that found in the razor hydra controller.  Hand tracking is pointed out as an area of intense research but the problems involved are nontrivial.  Abrash makes the bold claim that we will be using handheld devices for a long time to come based on the technical challenges with hand tracking. I think this is a reasonable guess but I hope we can eventually do away with these sorts of external controllers.  Unfortunately, Abrash is likely correct that we will be stuck with them for some time.  

Ergonomics

Abrash ambitions for VR are smaller than Magic Leaps. That is not a bad thing.  There is a good chance that having reasonable ambitions is smarter than reaching for the moon and crash landing. With that in mind, the ergonomics discussed differ from that of Magic Leap.  Reducing weight and prescription correction are pointed at as major improvements that can be made to the Oculus product but most importantly, he claims, is the need for wireless headsets to allow for freedom of movement within the home. He clearly is not thinking of shrinking devices to glasses size and he is not thinking of removing the “tether” (Wired or wireless) to the PC. That said, Oculus is building a stand alone device but Abrash did not appear to be excited about that potentially.  His ambition for the VR future is one for the living room not the sidewalk. While Magic Leaps first product will likely have the same ambition, the long term goal is to build something that can be used anywhere in the world.  Magic Leap will likely have a wire for some time but this wire will behave more like a headphone cable than a wall plug. We already know people are happy to wire a device to something on your head from the long history we have with headphones.  I like where Oculus is going with removing wires from a VR headset but this technology is not as vital to the Magic Leap product.  

Computer Vision

Oculus and Magic Leap are approaching the problem of mixed reality from opposite sides. Oculus wants to bring the world in to VR while Magic leap wants to bring VR to the world. The practical difference here is see through lenses which brings VR to the world versus closed imagery which brings the world into VR.  He tried to coin the term “Augmented VR”  but had to describe that term using the already established verbiage of Mixed Reality which made it feel awkward. I think awkward sums up the idea of bringing the world into VR.  This approach will always give people a sense of disconnect with the real world and the content they are consuming.  That said, we don’t know which approach will work best but the problems that will need to be solved are similar. Understanding the world via computer vision is vital to both approaches. Further, as Abrash points out, building realistic “virtual humans” will be an important use case regardless of how mixed reality will work.  

Personally, I believe Oculus is barking up the wrong tree here. Rony Abovitz seems to agree calling the likes of Oculus a “Really Bad Idea“.  See through lenses are yet to be proven but if they are feasible the advantages over full VR are vast.  From lowering required rendering and world mapping to approachability, see through lenses are simply better. It remains to be seen if they can be built practically but I highly doubt people will want to walk around the world completely closed off even in their living room when an alternative that allows for external vision exists. Why rely on display to reproduce what is directly in front of you?  

Competition is a good thing

While I don’t personally buy into everything Oculus and Abrash is saying here, much of it overlaps with what we can gather Magic Leaps vision to be. Having another company working towards similar goals validates much of what Magic Leap is trying to do. This sort of competition can only be good for pushing the technology forward and I welcome the ambition Oculus is driving towards. Hopefully both companies can succeed in their own way and push each other to do great things. I look forward to Oculus succeeding and wish them the best in the dreams they have laid out.