The last few years have seen skyrocketing interest in virtual reality technology. Once relegated to the realms of imagination and science fiction, consumer products like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have put the future in millions of living rooms around the world. It seems the future of entertainment is in these high-tech headsets which transport users to virtual worlds, though VR is not the only burgeoning headset technology with a chance to change the future of the tech landscape.
The Magic Leap One is not a virtual reality device, though it can easily be mistaken for such; a large headset which looks like a cross between a visor from Star Trek: The Next Generation and a chic tiara, this piece of wearable equipment is noticeably smaller than regular VR devices, and doesn't replace one's vision; it augments it.
Augmented Reality, also called Mixed Reality, allows users to see the world around them as usual, but with additional information supplied by the headset. The ultimate goal of AR is to mix the virtual with the real, giving users access to a whole new dimension of artificial reality, seamlessly integrated with the world as it currently exists.
This technology isn't exactly new, but the Magic Leap One is a far cry from the undercooked Google Glass from a few years ago, which kind of sputtered out after courting skepticism and tepid interest. While less discreet than those compact eyeglasses, the Magic Leap One offers significantly more under-the-hood horsepower in an effort to provide more in-depth experiences than a rudimentary Heads Up Display.
What Is Magic Leap One and Augmented Reality?
The goal of Magic Leap (and of AR in general) is to give users access to more reality than our naked eyes can provide. Rather than an escape into VR, mixed reality allows additional information to be projected into the world, allowing users to see things that aren't actually there. The technology is still in its early stages, but our hands-on time with the headset left us optimistic at the future of AR.
Magic Leap was first founded in 2010, but their tech has remained entirely secretive until now. At L.E.A.P. Con earlier this year, Magic Leap showed off several projects, including high-profile collaborations with Weta Workshop, Wingnut AR, and Insomniac Games, which show off some of the practical and entertaining uses of mixed reality. The possibilities of Mixed Reality are endless, but it's up to Magic Leap to provide a viable device for which creators can develop applications.
The first thing we noticed about the Magic Leap "lightwear" headset is how comfortable it is. Unlike most VR headsets, which fit over the user's face like goggles, the Magic Leap is worn higher, almost like a crown; this is to ensure the user's ears aren't covered. Magic Leap isn't virtual reality, so the goal isn't to shut the user off from the world; it's mixed reality, so users can theoretically live their lives and walk around while wearing the headset. While there are certainly limits to the portability of the headset, it's obvious that comfort and user mobility are a priority for Magic Leap, and the current result remains impressive. It's not as incognito as a pair of glasses, and the field of view is a bit more limited than I was expecting, but it's more comfortable than it looks; the headset can be tightened snugly around the forehead, but its soft padded inside keeps it from digging into the skin. In terms of weight distribution, it feels much more balanced than most VR sets we've used, which often feel like they're pulling users' heads forward by default. Users will never forget they're wearing a headset, but wearing the Magic Leap is not a chore, which is a great step for this technology. However, the biggest advantage here is portability.
Unlike VR headsets, which have a wired connection to a computer or video game console (wireless versions are likely on the horizon, but latency issues are a technical hurdle to overcome), the Magic Leap is connected to a small device, called the Lightpack, which clips onto one's belt or easily fits in a pocket. Greg Rinaldi, Magic Leap's Director of Developer and Creator Relations, says the tech inside the Lightpack is more powerful than the Nintendo Switch, a trait which comes in handy with Seedling, a new project from the creative team at Insomniac Games.
Insomniac Games' Seedling Shows Off The Potential of Magic Leap
Seedling is a tech demo which shows just what the Magic Leap is capable of. At its core, it's a science fiction bonsai tree simulator. Players plant a seedling anywhere in their house and nurture, feed, prune, and observe as it grows in real time. Insomniac Games' Creative Director Nathaniel Bell led me through a demo of Seedling, which had me going through the steps of maintaining my growing tree, jumping to around eleven days of growth. Upon loading up the demo, I was surprised to see the tree securely anchored to a table, rather than floating in the air. Bell says the tree will adapt to where it is placed; users will have to scan their environments so the AR tech knows the boundaries of the local three dimensional space, and then, as the tree grows, it won't clip through its surroundings, but grow around it, just like a real plant.
The tech on display was impressive; I was able to walk around the table without being tethered to a computer, observing the tree from any angle, and using the wireless controller to switch between a water can and pruning scissors was easy and responsive. It's not exactly Spider-Man or Ratchet & Clank, but Seedling still captures the imagination and immerses the player in its fictional world. The science fiction aesthetics are pleasant, but are mere window dressing to facilitate the simulator gameplay, which, while not particularly sophisticated, does a great job of showcases the strengths of the its cutting-edge technology.
Upon removing the headset, I looked at the table, completely expecting to see the space tree sitting there. Of course, it wasn't, but my brain was completely tricked. It was there, in augmented reality. It's easy to imagine a future in which, once the headsets are shrunk to a more reasonable size and can be worn out in public without getting a second glance from strangers, mixed reality will play an integral role in everyday life, from walking virtual dogs to tending to an entire garden of seedlings.
Magic Leap is still a long way from being a standard part of every household; the currently available Creator Edition of the tech retails for over $2000. The goal of the company right now is to get as many units as possible into the hands of customers/developers who can whip up games and programs to turn the promise and potential of augmented reality into a fully realized wonderland of imagination and practical applications. To what extent that optimistic outlook will actually be fulfilled remains to be seen, but the future is wide open in the realm of mixed reality, so tech enthusiasts should be very excited how this space continues to develop in the coming years.