Tech’s “next big thing” is looking more like a “maybe in a few more years thing.”
Magic Leap, a Florida startup, has raised $2.3 billion (yes, billion) from investors on the promise it can mix computer-generated images into regular human sight. Think Pokémon Go built into glasses. Cloaked in secrecy for seven years, it released dazzling demo videos and let a few sample its newfangled View Master under controlled conditions.
Now come the unvarnished reviews. The company’s first product, the $2,295 Magic Leap One, recently began shipping to developers. The Washington Post bought a pair, and I have been using it to test the Magic Leap augmented-reality experience.
Here’s my real reality experience: Right now, Magic Leap isn’t even a very good parlor trick.
The product lets you walk around a room, tethered only to a disc-shaped computer worn on your hip, and experience a few 3-D apps that map into the space around you. But it is not dramatically better than competing (and not terribly compelling) AR gear already out there, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens.
Why should you care? You probably won’t be buying a Magic Leap any time soon. But we’re not going to be staring down at phone screens forever, ignoring family members and walking into traffic.
The Magic Leap goggles, called Lightware, are translucent. When you wear them, it looks like a virtual world is painted on top of the real one — a creature is running around your desk, a web-browser window is hanging on your wall.
There is, no doubt, a lot to be worked out for a new kind of computing device. But I’m surprised Magic Leap isn’t further along on the basics. Most curious: The company blamed some of my challenges on an improper fit of its headgear. My fit had been set up by an agent Magic Leap sends to all deliver all purchases. I was left wondering how they will ever sell the product to millions if hardware calibration is that delicate.
Here are six things that stand out about the real-life Magic Leap experience upon its debut.
1. Only a fraction of your view gets augmented, which ruins the magic
The ultimate test for any augmented-vision tech: Do you feel like you are in a different world ... or at least on some hallucinogenic substance? You can see some trippy things, but there’s no way you will forget what’s producing them.
Looking through these lenses, it’s like there is a box that fills about half the frame where all the 3-D images appear. If you move slightly, the virtual object you are looking at gets awkwardly cropped. Magic Leap’s field of view — about 50 degrees — is a bit wider than some rivals. But it still isn’t enough to feel like a leap.
2. It tired my eyes quickly
After about 20 minutes of wearing the Magic Leap One, my eyes started to feel like I had been staring at a laptop screen for six hours. The same happened to a colleague who doesn’t normally wear glasses. This doesn’t happen to either of us with VR headsets.
Magic Leap said our eyestrain is uncommon. You can’t wear glasses inside the device, though Magic Leap said this fall it will begin to sell corrective lenses you can add onto the device.
3. There’s not much to do with it yet
Usually when I test a new kind of technology, I demo it to people of different ages and of different technical expertise. (I’m available for show and tell at dinners and kids’ parties.) But that was especially hard to do with Magic Leap because it comes with so few apps.
The best experience is an app called Create. It lets you paint in 3-D and create dioramas with pre-made animated creatures.
4. It is comfy on your head — but you can’t pass it along
The Magic Leap One is more comfortable to wear than many other face computers. That’s because the company smartly chose to put the heaviest bits, including the processor and roughly 3-hour battery, into that circular computer that clips into a pocket or you wear with straps like a purse. The headpiece itself weighs three quarters of a pound, and sits above your ears, higher on the back of your head than you might think.
Unfortunately, the individually calibrated nature of the product makes it hard to just hand your glasses over to a buddy to try.
5. ‘Spatial computing’ is cool, but the remote doesn’t make sense
The best thing about Magic Leap is that it knows where you are in relation to everything else in the room. A bunch of sensors on the headgear map the space around you, so you are free to just move around the room and interact with virtual things. Can’t quite read some text on a virtual sign? Physically move closer to inspect it, just like you would in the real world.
But interacting with the world isn’t smooth because of the included remote, which is like a cross between an Apple TV clicker and an X-Box controller. The buttons aren’t intuitive in 3-D space, and there’s not much unity between how you use it in different apps: Is it a trackpad? A magic wand? A lightsaber?
I was confused by the user interface in several apps. For example, in a web-browser app, you can leave windows to hang out at different parts of the room. But how do you collect, move and close all the windows you leave littered around the room? (Just when you thought opening too many web browser tabs was a problem ...)
The Magic Leap One can also track your hand movements and the position of your eyes, which could unlock interesting potential. Few apps yet take advantage of it.
6. You look like an idiot
Google Glass was sunk, in part, by how it made its owners look. The Magic Leap One looks like a prop from “Mad Max: Fury Road” — very cool if you are looking for a futuristic costume, but not something you would wear walking down the street. (Magic Leap doesn’t recommend wearing it outdoors, anyway.)
The design also introduces social problems. Though you can see the people around you, they have no idea what you are looking at — if you are paying attention, or even if you are recording them. This information imbalance also contributed to Google Glass’ woes.