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January 25, 2018

Will 2018 be the Magic Leap year?

Florida-based Magic Leap is a very mysterious company, by any standard. Founded in 2010 by Rony Abowitz. it has raised between $1.4 billion and $2 billion (depending on who you believe) in several rounds of financing. And all this without releasing a product. But in 2017 they did finally announce the forthcoming release a developer’s model and SDK, along with documentation and “learning resources” in 2018. Could this be one more to be added to our best VR list.

What they have developed is a display that projects light into the user’s eyes. This display is something between a full Head Mounted Display, of the kind that one sees with Virtual Reality, and a pair of glasses with attachments of the kind one sees on Augmented Reality hardware.

AR glasses

A gimpse into the future?

The company has raised $1.9 billion dollars in several funding rounds based on its R&D, the track record of its personnel and whatever technology it has demonstrated in private to its investors. And while we’re on the subject of investors, they include Google parent Alphabet, Alibaba and Qualcomm. And although not yet out there in the market with a product, they have been busy on several other fronts.

For example, on February 11, 2016, they joined the Entertainment Software Association and a week later they acquired the 3D division of Dacuda, a Swiss computer vision company. Then, in April of that year, they acquired Israeli cybersecurity company Northbit. Two months later, they announced a partnership with the R&D unit of Lucasfilm (a Disney subsidiary).

Magic Leap patent application

A numbers game? No, the Magic Leap patent application

Although a highly secretive company, some of their known activities suggest that they are also a highly enterprising venture. For example, as far back as December 2014, they had appointed science fiction author Neal Stephenson as “Chief Futurist”. (How many companies have one of those.)

The company’s history is also quite unusual, if their Wikipedia entry is anything to go by:

According to past versions of its website, the startup evolved from a company named "Magic Leap Studios" which around 2010 was working on a graphic novel and a feature film series, and in 2011 became a corporation, releasing an augmented reality app at Comic-Con that year.

A beautiful view

A beautiful view

However, by late 2014, their publicly available patent and trademark applications suggested that they were aiming to create, not content but actual hardware - specifically augmented reality glasses. Moreover, the design of the product they have now released, suggests that they are aiming for a product that can superimpose a virtual image over a real-world view (i.e. augmented reality) whilst being able to block out the outside world when desired (i.e. virtual reality).

Magic Leap remains highly secretive about the technology, but analysts who have examined their patents have concluded that they use stacked silicon waveguides to project an image directly onto the retinas of the user’s eyes.

Where monsters come to life

Where monsters come to life

Early videos showing not the hardware but input through the device, suggested that it required further development. Overlaid “reflections” were not always where they were supposed to be and overlaid objects did not appear to be fully opaque and were therefore incapable of blocking out light from the real-world objects that they were in front of. This would prevent the Magic Leap from being fully immersive or even as versatile as augmented reality glasses ought to be.

But that was two years ago, and a lot of R&D has gone into this hardware since then.

Leap with your eyes not your feet!

Leap with your eyes not your feet!

Unfortunately, Magic Leap has still not given out any information on the price or release date. We know that it will need to be connected not to a computer, but to a dedicated device called a Lightpack. But we know very little else. The company says that the hardware will have sensors, but just what type and what they will “sense” remains a mystery. Visual sensors? Real-space location? Motion?

Magic Leap has hinted that the device will actually be able to “remember” an environment and recreate it later, or at least know how the environment is laid out. They also claim that the full caboodle will respond to voice and gestures and be able to track head and even eye positions. They also say it will have a handheld remote - although why it would need one if it can track gestures is not clear.

Robo person?

Robo person?

Evidently, then, this is a company that prefers to “get it right” behind closed-doors rather than release a kludgy, unfinished product. They have spent a lot of time getting it right and managed to raise a lot of money from companies that understand technology. If I were placing a bet on the breakthrough consumer technology company of 2018, Magic Leap would be a good candidate for my money.

March 20, 2018

Avegant scales down AR project

Avegant AR light-field technology headset

A year ago, Bay area company Avegant (maker of a personal cinema system) announced that they were developing an Augmented Reality headset using their light field technology. But in February they replaced CEO Joerg Tewes with company founder Ed Tang. And now they have laid off 30 of their 50 workers.

Tang has said that despite the downsizing, the company remains committed to developing an AR headset. Avergant’s AR division is in direct competition with Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap. In some respects, the parallels to Magic Leap are stronger, because Magic Leap claims to have developed light field technology. But whilst Avegant has already demonstrated their technology in the Glyph – aiming light directly into the eye – Magic Leap continues to play its cards close to its chest.

Avegant demoed the technology to The Verge over a year ago and it was deemed superior to the HoloLens, despite the fact that HoloLens was a standalone wireless device, whereas the Avegant required the processing power of a high-spec PC. The main strengths of the Avegant headset were its superior field of view and the sharpness and clarity of its image display.

Avegant Glyph with light field technology

Avegant Glyph

The demo – in a conference room at Avegant’s corporate offices - included views of the solar system and the ocean floor. In the solar system view which one could see Jupiter’s red spot and a satellite orbiting earth. What was so impressive about this demo was that objects of different focal length could be shown in a fixed environment. The Verge writer gave the example of squinting until the sun went out of focus and then seeing the virtual Saturn in sharp focus, including its rings.

There was also a sea view that showed a sea turtle and small, aquatic creatures in sharp definition. The reporter was able to stick his hand into the images, but because the prototype didn’t yet have an advanced tracking system, it was not possible to interact with it. In the HoloLens demo, in contrast, one can tap on one’s coffee table to trigger a display of virtual molten lava.

The demo in fact used the public asset library of the Unity game engine for the images and off-the-shelf cameras for the tracking to identify real objects in the room. Avegant’s long-term strategy calls for inside-out tracking to avoid the need for external cameras or trackers.

Ongoing Mysteries

To some extent, Avegant is also somewhat secretive about its technology. While refusing to reveal precisely how the company implements light field technology, Founder and new CEO Tang hinted that the HoloLens is based on conventional 3D stereoscopy. Microsoft’s own secrecy policy has prevented them from revealing details of their “light engine”.

Similarly, Rony Abovitz, the CEO of Magic Leap, has criticized Microsoft’s image creation technology and claimed that Magic Leap’s is superior. However, given the absence of evidence that anyone outside Microsoft knows what technology they are using – and given Magic Leap’s own secrecy, there is no way of knowing who has the best technology. All we know for sure is that Avegant has had practical market experience of light field technology, while Magic Leap has had $1.3 million in funding and backing from Google parent Alphabet, while Microsoft has huge size and a range of experience.

Man wearing an Avegant headset

Man wearing an Avegant headset

It might be the financial disadvantage that has forced Avegant to scale back its efforts in AR. It is worth noting that despite Microsoft’s size – or maybe because of it – they released what was essentially a far from finished product and then charged $3000 for it. In contrast, Avegant’s personal cinema retailed for $799 – the price point for many high-end VR and AR products.

Avegant still in the AR race

The sudden downsizing and replacement of the CEO suggests that Avegant is having trouble matching its larger competitors when it comes to funding. Ed Tang himself has said that the company is in the process of closing a $10 million funding round that would bring their total capital raised to $60 million since the company’s inception in 2012.

Avegant AR light-field technology headset

Avegant AR headset

However, there are several more serious omens that bode ill for the company. It has noticeably lowered its public profile on Facebook and Twitter in the last few months, despite a very active and vigorous presence before that. And the last time it posted a new video on its YouTube channel was half a year ago.

This can suggest one of two things: either it is going through some kind of malaise that threatens its very existence, or it is legally obliged to go quiet because it is planning to announce an initial public offering and doesn’t want to be seen as hyping a product still in development, that is nowhere near market ready. The downsizing suggests the former. However, it could also be a strategy to ensure that the company is optimized for efficiency when it launches on the stock market.

August 17, 2017

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In this article, we review the best Virtual Reality and video headsets of 2018.

As a concept, Virtual Reality has been around for years. But as a reality, it has only recently started to make inroads into the consumer markets. Once the stuff of science fiction, it first appeared in the real world as military technology for combat or specialized, hi-tech training. And much of it was enshrouded in secrecy...

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VR may still be in its infancy, but everyone who has been watching it knows that it is growing up fast! So far, it has penetrated the hard-core gaming market but hasn’t yet achieved the uptake level of television, personal computers and mobile phones.

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