We were always hoping Magic Leap were keeping the cards close to their chest in terms of what technology they have developed. It make sense. When the only people you are marketing to are investors and talent to hire then you want to make it seem like you have something that no one else does. You want to make it feel like they could be part of something amazing. But that time has come to an end. They are no longer an R&D company. They are a product company or hope to be. They are no longer talking to investors and talent exclusively. They are talking to us. The consumer.
Consumers are more fickle. They don’t like being lied to or having the perception of being lied to. They don’t like arrogance and hubris (unless you are Apple) and they don’t like engineering for engineering sake (unless you are Google). They like products. And they like products you can buy.
So, let’s look at what we expect to be able to buy given what we know. It has become clear that whatever secret sauce they have is far less exciting than was guessed at. That does not mean they don’t have something up their sleeve it just means it might not be as much of a leap forward as speculated.
No big jumps in resolution
This was predicated on a novel display technology, the fiber scanning display, that does not appear to be ready. A more traditional 1080p display is likely what we will get. The quote from reporters “There are no pixels” will not be true for the first product.
No hugely increased field of view
Without the high resolution, Magic Leap will have a hard time increasing field of view by a huge margin. They might have something interesting with regards to optics but the further you spread out the pixels the worse the image will look. Expecting something better than hololens but far worse than the Oculus or Vive seems reasonable.
Low fidelity variable optical focus
This is core to Magic Leaps philosophy. They need something here. But there has been doubt cast on how well this will work. Some speculate there will only be two planes of focus. Others think it will all be done via eye tracking and software. This area is likely the most ripe for a surprise. They might have something interesting. The “photonic chip” is the only part of their product they have shown publicly so they are clearly proud of it. We should set our expectations low though as this is a hard problem particularly as the display technology they hoped to develop fell through.
Inside out tracking on par or a bit better than tango
If there is one thing HoloLens should be proud of, it is inside out tracking. It does a great job at this. It is the best there is. We can hope magic leap is able to build something similar to this but likely they will fall sightly short. This isn’t that damning though as you don’t need perfect tracking to make a useful product and it is something that can be improved as HoloLens has proved. I suspect we might get something similar to what google has achieved with project tango. That is to say, we don’t get perfect tracking but it is passable. Objects appear relatively stationary with only some jitter.
With all of these downsides, you might question if Magic Leap has anything interesting to offer beyond what Microsoft and some others have built in this space. While they seem to be building something very similar to HoloLens I think there is one place where we will genuinely feel that they have built something far more interesting than the competition.
Small form factor
We still don’t know what the form factor will be but all indications are that they are striving for something small, something glasses like. While no doubt they will be bulky compared to a regular pair of glasses they will likely look far more reasonable to wear when compared to the helmet like devices we typically see today. If Magic Leap is able to make a carbon copy of HoloLens but with a decent form factor and price then they will have achieved quite a feat.
ODG was able to cram all the optics, battery, processing and a cameras need to build a display in to a pair of glasses. It is missing inside out tracking which really limits their potential but the form factor they were able to achieve is promising. If Magic Leap moves the battery and processing to the pocket unit then then they can use that conserved space to fit the cameras and technology needed for inside out tracking and potentially eye tracking.
Should we still be excited? Should we still have faith?
If you were excited about cutting edge graphics that look just like real life then I’m sorry to say that isn’t going to happen. If you thought that Magic Leap would replace all screens then you might have to wait a few iterations of the technology. As Rony Abovitz has said, the first product will be like the iPod to Apples iPhone. It won’t do everything. It will be a bit bulky. It might be a bit awkward to use. But certain things it will be good at. Certain core activities we do everyday on our smartphones will be better using these glasses. Maps and Navigation are the first thing that comes to mind. “Second Screening” when watching sports or television. AR games that don’t require huge amount of horsepower (pokemon go style) will likely be a blast. Table top games will be taken to a whole new level. At work these could be used to have virtual white boards when people work from home and want to have meetings. They could be used as a sort of second monitor that removes the bounds of the display.
These are just examples off the top of my head. None of them need high resolution. None of them need perfect tracking. None of them need high fidelity focal planes. But all of them require us to feel comfortable wearing and using the product. We will never feel that way if we have to wear a giant helmet like device. Form factor and a minimum level of tracking, graphics and interface are the most important things for Magic Leap to nail. I still have faith they can do that.