Virtual reality usually conjures up vivid images of hardcore gamers wearing elaborate VR headsets and sensor-laden gear playing shooters in the dark. Sci-Fi fans probably picture scenes from The Lawnmower Man or Minority Report or recall the metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s bestseller Snow Crash.
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Even for the most imaginative minds, the idea of full immersion in a fictional world is the stuff of dreams and fantasies that can never be fully realized. Indeed, we’ve been forever trained to think of virtual reality as an oxymoron. Never the twain shall meet.
Well, what if I told you that every computer and entertainment interface will ultimately be replaced by a lightweight device that will seamlessly integrate virtual and real worlds and project them directly onto your retina in such a way that you won’t be able to tell objects from either world apart? And what if I said that device is coming soon, say within a year or so? What then?
If you’re thinking Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, or Samsung Gear VR, think again. We’re talking technology that’s so far beyond, that the reaction of the select few who’ve actually experienced it is to say, “That can’t be done; it must be a trick.” And when they realize it’s no trick, they pull out a checkbook and ask, “How many zeros shall I write?”
I’m talking about Magic Leap, a secretive startup that’s raised $1.4 billion from a who’s who of investors that include Google, Kleiner Perkins, Andreessen Horowitz, Qualcomm, Warner Bros., Alibaba, Fidelity, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley. It closed a Series C round of funding three weeks ago at a post-money valuation of $4.5 billion. And at a recent conference, CEO Rony Abovitz said the company is “gearing up to build millions” of devices in South Florida.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let me be clear. Magic Leap’s technology is not virtual reality, per se, but augmented reality. If that sounds at all like a caveat or concession, rest assured that it’s neither. In terms of its potential to bring a sea change to the way we currently interact with computers and consumer electronics devices, AR is vastly superior to VR.
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You see, VR describes full immersion in an alternate 3D world or experience. You can potentially interact via sensors, but otherwise, it’s just you and some others in an entirely digital world. AR, on the other hand, enables you to experience the combination of digital and physical worlds by integrating the two. In other words, you can live and work in AR, not in VR.
Since it can replace the interface between man and machine, the applications for AR are virtually limitless. Instead of having to look at or touch a 2D display, you can view, experience and interact with information, images, video, icons, whatever, in a more natural way. Virtual and real objects can potentially be indistinguishable.
Tech advisor Digi-Capital expects AR to be a $90 billion market by 2020. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the size of the smartphone market in 2012 – five years after Apple’s iPhone launch. And noted Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster has dubbed VR and AR “the next technology megatrend” with “the potential to make every computer and entertainment interface disappear.”
While Magic Leap is still in stealth mode, it’s left enough dribs and drabs in the form of demos, developer kits, press releases and interviews for us to piece together what its device actually is and how it works.
The company’s first product will likely be a lightweight headset that can be worn all the time without typical VR side effects of dizziness or nausea. Infrared cameras will create a complete 360-degree, 3D awareness of the user. That reality will be seamlessly integrated with virtual objects in real time and the combination projected directly onto the users’ eyeballs.
The initial product is expected to include video and audio, with touch and other senses down the road.
According to reports, one of the problems with Microsoft’s HoloLens is that its field of vision is relatively narrow, so when a user looks to the periphery, the virtual effects are essentially lost. And Google Glass projects a 2D image at a specific point in the user’s visual field. Magic Leap’s product is said to avoid both of those limitations.
As for the stigma that so-called Glassholes suffered, my guess is that, if Magic Leap’s technology is as groundbreaking as those who’ve experienced it say it is, then social barriers will break down and the product will take off. How fast that occurs will depend more on hardware tradeoffs between performance, size, weight, battery life and cost than cultural norms.
The boilerplate of the company’s press releases reads, “Magic Leap is developing the next computing platform that will enable you to seamlessly combine and experience your digital and physical lives.” We’ll know soon enough if it can deliver on that lofty goal and bring augmented reality to life.