I watch a mountain range projected onto a wooden table. The mountain range is not part of some flashy game or art project. I can’t reach out and touch it like a real object. Thanks to some software optimizations still in progress, it bugs a little when I move. And I’ll never buy the high-end augmented reality headset that creates the illusion – the Magic Leap 2, due to launch later this year. But the scene is remarkable for one important reason: I can actually see everything at once.
Magic Leap was once known for its theatrics and huge promise, but the massively funded but beleaguered startup has spent years trying to get back to Earth. It laid off much of its workforce and changed CEOs in 2020, ditching its consumer AR plans to focus on healthcare, manufacturing and defense. The Magic Leap 2, officially announced in 2019, is supposed to cement its presence in these industries. In reality, the company’s future still seems uncertain. But based on a limited demo of a version with full hardware and software in development, it’s launching a genuinely improved second-generation device featuring a significantly better field of view – taking a step towards alleviating one of the persistent pain points of AR.
Like the 2018 Magic Leap 1, the Magic Leap 2 features a pair of dark gray glasses attached to a puck-shaped computer that you can clip to a strap or belt. These glasses refract light from small LCOS displays through multi-coated lenses that project holographic images into your surroundings. But they do it in a much more balanced package. The Magic Leap 2 weighs 248 grams compared to the original’s 316 grams, which was already svelte compared to the 566-gram Microsoft HoloLens 2. Between the weight reduction and an optional head strap, it fits me more easily and firmly than almost any other smartglass I’ve tried – although for a demo of around 30 minutes, which is a far cry the full workday that Magic Leap says it’s designed for.
You won’t find a drastic design overhaul in the Magic Leap 2’s simple motion control remote, but internally the company has made a significant change. The Magic Leap 1 tracked the movements of its controllers with electromagnetic fields. But, citing issues with using magnetic sensors around some industrial equipment, Magic Leap switched to optical tracking which incorporates both helmet-based sensors and cameras mounted in the actual controller. The remote isn’t designed to give you full-fledged virtual hands like many VR controllers do, and I couldn’t try any complex object manipulation, but it certainly seems functional enough for simple pointer interfaces. -to click. (I watched an extremely unofficial Magic Leap beat the saber clone, but it’s hard to judge hardware performance from a rough prototype application.)
All of this is potentially great for Magic Leap’s enterprise customers, around 35 of which are testing the Magic Leap 2 ahead of a slated release in Q3 2022. But that doesn’t mitigate the device’s long-term compromises. Offloading the electronics to the puck makes the headset lighter and more comfortable than the standalone HoloLens, for example, but that means you’re walking around with a long wire attached to a weird computer. Although Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson says this hasn’t been a major issue for current customers, who use the device for things like training simulations and medical diagnostics, it does point to the limits to which high-end AR headsets still face.
In an evenly lit, monochromatic demo room, the Magic Leap 2’s holograms look great by today’s AR standards. (That means images are still a bit transparent, but they’re crisp and vivid, and text is easy to read.) A new feature can also make them stand out from the real world by dimming parts of your vision down to the near darkness. – bright lights were still coming through, but I had to try hard to identify other objects while using it. And while I didn’t check out the sophisticated mixes of real and virtual space, the objects remained pinned to one place in a way that consumer headsets like the Nreal Light can’t manage. That makes sense, of course, given the much higher price of the Magic Leap 2: it’s supposed to cost a bit more than the Magic Leap 1, which starts at $2,295.
On the other hand, both generations of Magic Leap headsets – like some other AR devices – use dark lenses that constantly darken your vision and make you look like you’re wearing giant sunglasses inside. That might not change anytime soon, says CEO Peggy Johnson, although Magic Leap is experimenting with solutions. “That’s definitely a comment we’ve heard about it — that you want to be able to see other people’s eyes when they’re wearing it,” she says. “There is no doubt that over time it will come. I couldn’t really guess when that would be.
Magic Leap no longer promises a secret sauce that’s supposed to make its headset completely different from the competition. As noted by VR/AR expert Karl Guttag, the Magic Leap 2 ditches a system intended to simulate multiple focal lengths, one of its few truly unique selling points. (Johnson says it was a worthwhile trade-off to downsize the goggles, though she wouldn’t rule out bringing them back.) But the helmet seems to deliver its most exciting promised feature: a more natural field of vision. . .
Specs for the Magic Leap 2 have already been widely revealed, including its field of view, which offers 70 degrees diagonally compared to 50 degrees on its predecessor. That’s a fraction of humans’ natural field of vision, and it’s smaller than the standard VR headset by about 110 degrees. Even so, the Magic Leap 2’s field of view seems less immediate disabled than the first Magic Leap or the comparable HoloLens 2 – where holograms can be abruptly truncated with small head movements and appear to be looking through an invisible framed window.
This window still exists on the Magic Leap 2. But it has become much larger, making it less likely that a virtual object will exceed its size. Meanwhile, the headset’s bezel-like rims obscure some of your peripheral vision, making it look like there’s a physical object and not a digital limitation blocking your view.
Like virtually every AR company, Magic Leap plans to make a standalone pair of normal-looking goggles for a mass market — Johnson has even speculated about the possibility of AR contact lenses. But she downplays the possibility of releasing one soon. There’s also lingering speculation that Magic Leap’s long-term goal is to be acquired by another company. Addressing the possibility of an acquisition, Johnson says Magic Leap has only been focused on launching Magic Leap 2. But “I think a successful launch opens up all kinds of opportunities,” she says.
If Magic Leap is not acquired, it will need to build a sustainable business with its relatively narrow slice of customers. Citing optimistic projections about augmented reality adoption, Johnson thinks that’s a viable near-term goal for Magic Leap – “I think there’s enough interest in these three areas where everyone them could actually be a business in itself,” she says. . Beyond that, it’s a leap of faith.