The mysterious technology product teased via an eccentric TED Talk nearly five years ago has finally been revealed, and it's called the Magic Leap One: Creator Edition. After all of the non-disclosure agreements, furtive comments from CEOs and insiders given early access to the device, and a seemingly never-ending string of hints dropped by the company's CEO, Rony Abovitz, on Twitter, we finally have a real look at the product.
As usual with secretive tech releases, the public seems excited yet skeptical about whether this device can live up to the claims made by the company, its major investors, and insider group of friends who have helped hype the headset for years. But to be fair, until we have the opportunity to put the device on and try the software ourselves, forming an in-depth opinion of the product based solely on the specifications discussed by Abovitz, along with a series of images of the hardware, is difficult.
Nevertheless, since the company hasn't given us a release date, it's time to dig in and talk about exactly why this product, which has been so long in the offing, may already be fundamentally handicapped in several important ways.
A look at the Magic Leap website hints at some uses for the device including surfing the web, shopping, and, of course, viewing entertainment content, all in augmented reality. But let's take a realistic look at where the public's tastes stand on these kinds of innovations today.
Despite Hollywood's obsession with the technology, 3D movies and the glasses that accompany them in the theaters often elicit groans from casual cinema consumers who just want an easy way to watch their favorite new blockbuster movie. A recent update on this dynamic has come in the form of virtual reality, with movie studios working hard to create immersive experiences for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR headsets. And while some of those experiences are indeed fascinating, other than location-based VR centers (such as IMAX VR), we've seen no market proof that customers are clamoring to headsets or goggles for more interactive film and TV content at home, or in mobile environments, on a numerically large scale.
Okay, but what about other use cases, such as basic internet-enabled apps and websites through a pair of smartglasses? We already have some early indications of just how difficult it is to get users to change their computing paradigms from a desktop and mobile dynamic to anything else. That's why Apple wisely placed a massive bet on ARKit, banking on the notion that, for the foreseeable future, users will access their computing interfaces through smartphones and tablets. For any device to significantly change user habits, it must provide an immediate and demonstrable upgrade regarding usability and convenience.
So while the Magic Leap One appears to be well-designed and reasonably compact, asking millions and millions of people around the world to suddenly start walking around with a hip-mounted mini computer tethered to a pair of large smart goggles is, at this point, a stretch. History tells us that, if a mobile tech product is super easy to use, some people will adopt it, even if it's not a necessity. The first hurdle Magic Leap One faces is proving that it makes life in AR significantly easier. But if it's in any way, even slightly more difficult than using a smartphone or tablet, adoption on a significant scale could be a problem. Based on what we know now from today's reveal, this could be a real challenge.
Soon after the release of the device, we rounded up reactions to its design and overall look. In short, almost no one seems to be really considering wearing this in public. You'll have a hard time finding even cutting-edge tech users ready and willing to wear this thing out and about as they visit the local café or do their shopping. Whether it's because the device looks like a pair of Oakley ski goggles on steroids or the fact that it requires a tethered, hip-mounted computer pack that you need to carry around all day, there's still some work to be done here.
In that respect, Magic Leap One, despite the advanced technology claims, falls squarely in the same realm as devices at such as the HoloLens and Google Glass — devices that are welcome on the factory floor and in design studio production shops, but not likely to be worn in public on a daily basis.
But there's an even larger challenge ahead. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Magic Leap's device was somehow far ahead of the curve regarding design, and delivered on all of its technology promises in the same form factor as something like Snapchat's Spectacles. If that were the case, Magic Leap's chances of penetrating the mainstream would rise dramatically, without question.
However, there still seems to be a chasm of disconnection when it comes to putting computing devices on our faces, as exampled by the failure of Spectacles to catch on.
It's hard to say whether this is a result of our collective obsession with our smartphones, which still hasn't quite waned, or some psychophysiological rejection to the idea of being so tightly integrated with our computing platforms. The augmented reality researchers at Facebook claim that it will be at least five years before we have a viable pair of AR smartglasses that appear similar to a normal pair of glasses. It's possible that it may take years for headset adoption, as consumers gradually become comfortable with the idea of computing through their eyes.
One of the most significant promises of augmented reality is immersive computing — being able to surround yourself with a world of interactive virtual objects. But to achieve full immersion, your entire field of view of your surroundings needs to be available for virtual creation.
According to the reporter who was allowed to test the latest version of the device, the field of view on the Magic Leap One is roughly "the size of a VHS tape held in front of you with your arms half extended." That's somewhat larger than the field of view on the HoloLens, but still not fully immersive. In fact, even looking at the headset itself, it's apparent that your peripheral vision will be limited while wearing it, by the black plastic frames.
Still, the interactivity and overall experience may make the device's limited field of view worth it — we won't know until we try it ourselves. But what stands out here is that we are effectively still looking through a limited porthole into the new interactive universe that, while exciting, is not quite the dreamt of seamlessly immersive AR environment. Hopefully, with all of these mixed reality devices, the field of view will improve in the future. In fact, Abovitz said explicitly, in an interview with Rolling Stone, that the Magic Leap field of view will improve "significantly" in subsequent versions. But for the first version of the product, this limitation could severely limit the number of people interested in adopting it.
Someone has to put this out there: Is this another Abovitz troll job? Yes, Google and others have invested hundreds of millions in the company, and we have now seen video of a real app developed for the device. And, finally, we know how it looks. But if you look at a tiny string of text at the bottom of Magic Leap's website, you'll find a major caveat that you may want to note:
"Product is continually advancing and may be different at time of shipment."
If you're forgiving, you'll take that statement as a reasonable note that there may be some slight modifications to the product before shipping. But many of us have suffered through multiple Kickstarter campaigns that also included such caveats. Those statements, which indicated iterative development processes, ultimately lead to shipping dates sometimes years later than promised. To be sure, Magic Leap One is no Kickstarter beneficiary, and with its war chest of cash, it certainly could produce what it has shown off today. But after so many years of teasing this once mysterious product, and now still failing to announce a price, real release date, or even the basics like battery life, such a qualifying statement in small text at the bottom of the website is worrying.
At present, the promise is that we'll see the first units shipped in the spring of 2018. (Just a few months from now!) That's great if it happens. But after supporting my share of developer projects that were "still in development" when announced, I know how easy it is for a release date to suddenly shift and turn into a one- or two-year-long wait for an actual product.
You might think that in a day and age when many are happily spending $1,000+ on Apple's latest iPhone that price wouldn't be a hurdle. Fittingly, in his Rolling Stone launch interview, Abovitz even called out the first Mac as a comparable early adopter premium product when referencing who might be interested in purchasing the Magic Leap One.
The competition around the first personal computer from Apple wasn't as furious as what we see in the augmented reality space. Back in the '80s, you could count on one hand the list of companies betting on a mainstream personal computer. In contrast, the list of companies currently developing hardware and software for AR targeting the mainstream is long and growing every day.
Given this environment, price sensitivity becomes an even more significant point of interest. Consider that the HoloLens costs $3,000. Some developers have scraped up the cash, but most haven't. For many, the practical uses for the device still don't justify the investment. While we're already hearing semi-educated guesses that the Magic Leap device might be significantly cheaper — between $1,000 and $1,500 (putting it in the same range as the $1,500 Google Glass) — who will be willing to put down over a thousand dollars for it?
Consumers are just warming up to paying $1000 for their smartphones, which we use every day. Even the earliest adopters won't necessarily get daily use out of their headsets, so it's not clear that the mass market is ready to warm up to this new technology.
So, let's think incredibly optimistically and pretend we're in an alternate universe where Magic Leap One debuts for a price of $800 — about the same as an HTC Vive (the leader in non-gaming-centric, high-end VR headsets). I know, I know, VR and AR are entirely different. But let's just think for a moment about who is spending money on these non-traditional, immersive computing platforms — those early adopters who flock to these platforms and spend real cash. How many are out there?
Currently, the HTC Vive headset is estimated to have sold something in the range of half a million headsets, with Oculus Rift quickly gaining ground on its position.
Even if Magic Leap One could approach half a million devices sold, it wouldn't justify the nearly $2 billion in investment made in the company. Therefore, although Magic Leap is presenting a mainstream-friendly face, the most likely scenario is that its primary target will be big business and the enterprise market — those willing to pay more.
Where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, that's the same market currently being courted by the HoloLens. By taking on a major competitor who has been in the space for more than a year, even if Magic Leap is undercutting Microsoft's price, the product's footprint will likely struggle for at least the first year or two.
It looks to us like that both roads of this pricing fork lead to problems.
All that said, let's not forget that we live in interesting times. The New York Times just devoted an entire (very serious) feature to UFO sightings and how we might not be alone, and the previously obscure area of cryptocurrency mania has gripped the public like the 19th century California Gold Rush. In 2018, anything is possible.
Even with all of these hurdles in front of it, yes, it is possible that this time next year, it will be common to see high school kids waving in the air across the table from each other at Starbucks while wearing a pair of Magic Leap One goggles.
But for now, based on the aforementioned points, such a scenario is still more sci-fi than reality. Still, give Magic Leap credit, today we took a major step closer to that science fictional dream.