Following the launch of the Magic Leap One earlier this month, the device and the company took a few hits from early reviewers. But it turns out those were just love taps compared to the absolute scorched earth acidic screed penned this weekend by someone well credentialed to dissect Magic Leap One: Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey.
The first hints that the VR pioneer might weigh in on the Magic Leap One came last week when iFixit revealed that Luckey had helped the site with technical expertise during its teardown of the augmented reality device. After he let a few days pass to allow the teardown to be fully digested, he could hold back no longer and opened fire with easily the harshest criticism of the Magic Leap One yet.
"[Magic Leap One] is less of a functional developer kit and more of a flashy hype vehicle that almost nobody can actually use in a meaningful way, and many of their design decisions seem to be driven by that reality. It does not deliver on almost any of the promises that allowed them to monopolize funding in the AR investment community," wrote Luckey in a post on his personal blog titled "Magic Leap is a Tragic Heap" early Monday morning.
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Although Luckey directs most of his ire at the fact that Magic Leap spent several years widely hyping its device while aggressively maintaining a veil of secrecy, he does take several detailed shots at the Magic Leap One from a technical perspective.
"Tracking is bad. There is no other way to put it," wrote Luckey. "The controller is slow to respond, drifts all over the place, and becomes essentially unusable near large steel objects — fine if you want to use it in a house made of sticks, bad if you want to work in any kind of industrial environment. Magnetic tracking is hard to pull off in the best of cases, but this is probably the worst implementation I have seen released to the public."
I haven't tried the steel object test, but overall, I found the accuracy of the Control tracking to be enough of a hassle that I generally try to avoid using it as a pointer whenever possible.
"I understand that Magic Leap wanted a controller that did not require line-of-sight to the headset or a bulbous protrusion to report position, but that was a terrible trade-off to make, especially for developers who need a controller that just works — there are good reasons no other company decided to walk this path," wrote Luckey. "Parlor tricks like holding the controller behind your back are fun, but ML1 could and should have used basically any other type of tracking system."
He also touches on a design choice I also found somewhat odd — the trackpad design. "In another bizarre departure from competing devices, the trackpad is not clickable," Luckey says, pointing out at least one lesson learned via commercial VR systems that went ignored with the Magic Leap One. "The Steam Controller, HTC Vive wands, Oculus Go, Lenovo Mirage Solo, etc. all have a clickable trackpad, and designers have heavily relied on that feature. Even the PlayStation 4 controller has one!"
"The supposed 'Photonic Lightfield Chips' are just waveguides paired with reflective sequential-color LCOS displays and LED illumination, the same technology everyone else has been using for years, including Microsoft in their last-gen HoloLens," wrote Luckey. "The ML1 is a not a 'lightfield projector' or display by any broadly accepted definition, and as a Bi-Focal Display, only solves vergence-accommodation conflict [link added by Next Reality] in contrived demos that put all UI and environmental elements at one of two focus planes. Mismatch occurs at all other depths. In much the same way, a broken clock displays the correct time twice a day."
Despite the scorching parts of his review, Luckey isn't without some (muted) praise.
"The tracking is good compared to most other players in the AR/VR industry, but worse than most of the big guys, including HoloLens," wrote Luckey. "Expect jitter in ideal environments. If you want a comparison, think halfway between PSVR and Rift. The meshing system is good, but not nearly as fast as Hololens. It is pretty similar to what you see from companies with a few orders of magnitude less funding, like Stereolabs."
The comparison to the HoloLens continues with his take on the image quality: "Have you seen HoloLens? Think that, but with slightly larger FOV." Personally, I find the Magic Leap One's image quality to be better than the HoloLens, but I've heard similar comments from HoloLens veterans mirroring Luckey's opinion regarding the similarity of visual quality. He then mentions something I've noted in recent weeks, but have heard little from other reviewers, namely, the heat of the headset. "Despite drawing enough power to keep the headset nice and toasty (seriously, it is hard to touch the magnesium shell if you are in a warm room)," wrote Luckey, "the display is far too dim to use outdoors."
He then highlights an AR headset I've been praising for months that's not as powerful as the HoloLens, but represents a great step in the right direction regarding affordability and ease of use: the DreamGlass headset from Dreamworld.
"A true leap would have been a FOV that is wide enough to be useful, something that Magic Leap could have done if they prioritized user experience over meeting device size expectations," wrote Luckey. "For a good example, check out Dreamworld at 90 degrees – the tracking is not at all comparable, but the experience is pretty exciting."
Next to his take on the headset, this is perhaps where Luckey's critique is harshest.
"Magic Leap says they have 'built a whole new operating system' called LuminOS to take advantage of their "spatial computing system," wrote Luckey. "It is actually just Android with custom stuff on top, the same approach most people take when they want to claim they have built a whole operating system… I hope Magic Leap does cool stuff in the future, but the current UI is basically an Android Wear watch menu that floats in front of you."
Magic Leap hasn't released its initial sale numbers, but based on the way order numbers were being processed in the first day or so, some were able to glean rough estimates of what the sales might be at the time. Luckey estimates the initial sales were around 2,000, which is about in line with the 1,800 number Next Reality published a couple of weeks ago.
"If I had to guess, I would put total sales at well under 3,000 units at this point," says Luckey. "This is unfortunate for obvious reasons — I know over a hundred people with an ML1, and almost none of them are AR developers. Most are tech executives, 'influencers,' or early adopters who work in the industry but have no plans to actually build AR apps. This was a big problem in the early VR industry, and that was with many tens of thousands of developers among hundreds of thousands of development kits sold! Multiplying the problem by a couple orders of magnitude is going to be rough for ML."
He makes a great point there. Part of the problem with Magic Leap's marketing has been its seeming focus on entertainment and getting the consumer market excited when, in fact, what the company really needs in these early days are for more developers to get excited about the device. Chicken, meet egg. It's a brand building problem many have faced, but in Magic Leap's case, given its huge funding and the expectations that come with it, it could make or break the company.
Luckey does give Magic Leap some praise for its choice to make the Lightpack a hip-mounted computer, but that seems to be all he found redeeming about the Magic Leap One. Mostly, he focuses on the company's hype and $2.3 billion in funding.
"Magic Leap needed to really blow people away to justify the last few years. The product they put out is reasonably solid, but is nowhere close to what they had hyped up, and has several flaws that prevent it from becoming a broadly useful tool for development of AR applications," wrote Luckey. "That is not good for the XR industry. It is slightly better than HoloLens in some ways, slightly worse in others, and generally a small step past what was state of the art three years ago — this is more HoloLens 1.1 than Consumer AR 1.0."
This HoloLens "incremental" comparison was my take upon finally trying the Magic Leap, but Luckey is asserting that this failure to deliver on the hype could hurt AR in general. And to further make his point, he took to Twitter to hit on one of my frequent points regarding VR: the damage Google Cardboard did to VR before the arrival of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
"My argument is that releasing ML1 in the current state could be net-negative, not future hardware/the company itself," Luckey wrote on Twitter, after publishing his review. "You can argue against Google Cardboard the same way while still valuing Google's contributions overall."
In general, I think any comparison of the Magic Leap One to Google Cardboard regarding market influence is unfair, but I understand his fear as to what a major disappointment could do to the AR space in general.
The shots fired at the Magic Leap One by Luckey were immediately felt over at Magic Leap, leading its founder and CEO Rony Abovitz to take a few jabs back Luckey via Twitter.
"The Magic Leap team is a group of happy Air, Water, and Earth Benders," wrote Abovitz on Twitter, referencing the popular Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. "Of course, to keep things exciting, we will have to tangle with the Fire Nation, and their banished Prince Zuko. I wonder who is the bitter, angry, banished Zuko in our story?"
For those unfamiliar with the story of the Oculus Rift, that last slap from Abovitz is a reference to Luckey's controversy-tinged 2017 separation from the company he founded back in 2012.
"Oh yeah, and your firebending trick was invented in 1838," wrote Abovitz, with a link to Wikipedia's page on the stereoscope, a clear smack at Luckey's Oculus Rift. "There are enough rifts in our society. Let's unite people. Let's unify our digital and physical worlds. Let's create and be artists and build and play."
But fans of that animated series know that there's a problem with Abovitz's analogy. No matter what you think of Luckey's (Zuko's) personal perspectives outside of tech, firebending (or, producing a truly mainstream-level AR device) is important, and eventually, it's something Magic Leap will have to learn to do to succeed.
Just as Zuko later befriended The Last Airbender and taught him how to firebend, perhaps Luckey's scathing but often truthful review is what Magic Leap needs to level up and become the immersive computing system the mainstream will one day embrace.