Virtual reality headsets are all the rage these days, and among the menagerie of tech companies gunning for the top spot, there's one mysterious startup that is ahead of the game—Magic Leap—and you can tell just by watching their latest demo video of their product in action.
Magic Leap develops augmented reality (AR), so instead of a fully simulated environment, these AR headsets make it look like computer-generated overlays are in real life—ones you can interact with, which is actually more mixed reality (MR) than anything.
Fancy technological design makes this happen, and Magic Leap has the fanciest of all—according to word of mouth and a few promo videos. Magic Leap is tightlipped, and beyond the video demos, less than a handful of interviews, and a painfully cryptic website, nobody knows exactly how it does what it does or what the company's business plan will be.
Microsoft's HoloLens Mixed Reality headset is already shipping dev kits, has a price, and a timeline, whereas Magic Leap has none of that. But if nothing else, the company is credible because of all the big names and big money behind it: Google, Alibaba, venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins, and Peter Jackson, for example, raising $1.4 billion to date.
What's so special about Magic Leap's technology, and how do they do it? If you watch the video above, two things jump out as being important: depth of field and occlusion. Notice the robot hologram under the table and how the top of the table, and then the leg, successfully block it as if it were really really underneath. The HoloLens does this, but for that level of precision, its environmental mesh (the real-time 3D model of the world it creates by scanning its surroundings) would need to be manually fine-tuned and uploaded to the device. Second, the video shows that when focusing on certain orbiting planets it can leave others blurry, proving that these illusions are created using directional light fields, not just pixels.
In WIRED's video below, Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz said they accomplish this by using a "three-dimensional, wafer-like component that has very small structures in it, and they manage the flow of photons that ultimately create a digital light-field signal".
While they look very similar to the HoloLens' displays, this is apparently different. The HoloLens projects the holograms sideways into layered glass lenses that bounce around in certain specific ways through the glass and, eventually, out to your eyes, to give the holograms the right sense of depth and placement at a functional resolution of about 720p per eye. Both mixed reality headsets claim to project light through three-dimensional material that aids in making holograms truly appear to be positioned "out there" in your actual environment.
Depth of field and occlusion are hard and no one has perfected them yet, but from Magic Leap's videos and from some lucky tech reporters who got a chance to demo the headset, Magic Leap seems to be better at depth of field than the competition. WIRED's Kevin Kelly got an extensive interview and product test, and he came back saying that Magic Leap is "the best at creating the illusion that virtual objects truly exist."
Will Magic Leap be able to keep up momentum without a release date? Will it make a dent given that the HoloLens is already shipping to developers months (or more likely years) before Magic Leap? Maybe the secretive company wants it that way: to come out of nowhere, and kill the competition. Maybe it's not a race for them, but an assassination.