There Is No Magic in Magic Leap

The company's concept videos were obviously misleading to anyone who cares about mixed reality.

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Aug 8 2018, 3:29pm

One of the most annoying adages in writing about science and technology is the last of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws, which states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This is wrong, obviously, because technology would only seem like magic if you spent no effort in trying to understand how it works. If you did, you'll fall down rabbit holes that are way more interesting than magic. Want to blow your own mind? Spend a minute reading a top-level slideshow about how the CPU you're currently using is made. If you're not curious about how technology works and are easily distracted by sleights of hand, you're probably disappointed with the first round of impressions of Magic Leap's mixed reality headset.

For years, the company's CEO Rony Abovitz promised the world a device that would change the way we use technology without actually showing it in action or clearly explaining how it works, most notably in a 2015 concept video which showed a user checking his email and blasting robots with laser weapons, all of which were convincingly placed in a real world environment.

Now that the Magic Leap One Creator Edition is here, for sale in six US cities for the lol-worthy price of $2,295, we can definitively say that Magic Leap was full of shit.

Unlike the concept video would lead the average viewer to believe, the Magic Leap does not fill the viewer's field of view, blurring the line between digital reality and real reality. The line is very clear, and it has a horizontal FOV of 40 degrees, a vertical of 30 degrees, and a diagonal of 50 degrees, which is 45 percent larger than Microsoft's HoloLens, according to Road to VR. This means you're looking at a tiny transparent screen overlaying digital images on the real world, and not enveloped in a mixed reality experience. Unlike the concept video, the digital images that Magic Leap places in IRL environments don't look like opaque, solid objects you can touch. The motion sensors, like all motion sensing technology currently available, are far from perfect, and at times not responsive.

The Verge said the Magic Leap One Creator Edition "doesn’t seem like a satisfying computing device or a radical step forward for mixed reality."

"These experiences are certainly on par with other augmented reality and virtual reality demos I have seen. Are they really mind-blowingly better than the competition? Not yet," Wired, which previously gave Abovitz a breathless cover story, wrote today.

Image: Wired

The gap between what Magic Leap promised and what it released today is surprising only if you gullibly believed everything the company said, and/or spent no time looking at other augmented and mixed reality tech.

In 2015, I went to the Augmented Reality Expo in California and spent a couple of days trying a number of augmented and mixed reality headsets. Some of them were very crude prototypes that I could never imagine taking off in any meaningful way. The company that made the best device I saw there, CastAR, had a headset that looks as good as any real Magic Leap demo I've seen, but shuttered in 2016.

The problem with mixed and augmented reality then is the same as it is now and it's not one that Magic Leap manages to escape: it's a cool idea, it seems like it should be the future of computing, but there isn't a product on the market today that has more compelling functionality than a two-dimensional screen, and it doesn't offer anything other than novelty. It is still an unproven technology. That's not a bad thing. Technology is unproven until it is, and the only way we get cool new things is when someone tries something new. It's good that Magic Leap is trying, but when viewed in the larger context of what's happening in the augmented reality space, it becomes clear that it's unlikely for some small startup in Florida to change how we interface with computers overnight.

What makes this problem worse is that companies in this space tend to over-promise and confuse investors with misleading concept videos. Microsoft's promotional videos for HoloLens don't convey the actual experience of using them. CastAR's promotionals videos were similarly fantastical. In Today's Wired story, Abovitz admits that Magic Leap over-hyped its product and threw his marketing team under the bus: “It was like, which culture is going to win? This splashy big company kind of thing? Everyone else was just like, that doesn’t feel right." I could understand if this excuse came from a lowly engineer at Magic Leap, but Abovitz is the CEO, someone who directly benefited from the hype created by the marketing team, and who over-promised himself in interviews. At the very least, he knew that the concept videos were bullshit.

At the 2015 Augmented Reality Expo, VP of product at the augmented reality company DAQRI Matt Kammerait said that augmented reality companies should sign a treaty that concept videos shouldn't show anything the product couldn't currently accomplish, because it creates expectations that companies can't meet—which has the potential of turning off the very audience these devices need in order to take off. I don't think we can trust Magic Leap or any technology company to stop overhyping its products any time soon, but if there's anything to learn from its disappointing launch it's that we should stop believing in magic and start to understand how the technology we're promised actually works.