Can Augmented Reality Systems Live Up to the Hype?

Microsoft HoloLens

A number of companies are in various stages of developing augmented reality tech. But are the claims and demo videos that have already been released too good to be true? Will the visions of startups like MagicLeap become a reality, or do they — like the games and experiences they demonstrate — simply offer an illusion of something better than modest reality underneath?

If the future of virtual and augmented reality technologies plays out the way the companies behind them hope it will, then one day your laptop, your smartphone, and your television could be replaced by devices that overlay virtual apps and experiences on your surroundings or create immersive experiences that let you experience an entirely different world in your living room. Two of the most exciting augmented reality systems on the way are Microsoft’s HoloLens and MagicLeap’s technology.

Magic Leap is known for its secrecy about the hardware and software it’s building to deliver a “cinematic reality” experience that its CEO says is “disassociated” with the “legacy terms” of augmented reality and virtual reality, according to Re/Code. Magic Leap kept a low profile until it began raising large amounts of money. Google led a $542 million round of funding in the company, but it’s been in recent headlines as much for its unconventional public relations choices as for its relevance to the mounting curiosity about augmented reality systems.

As Tech Cheat Sheet reported recently, Microsoft in February unveiled the HoloLens augmented reality headset, which will track your movements and determine where you’re looking, and enable you to use hand gestures to interact with the 3D images it overlays on your surroundings. The headset integrates a camera, which looks out into a room to determine  the location of walls and objects and to project images on top of them.

Microsoft HoloLens

Technology Review’s Rachel Metz, so far the only person to have tried demos of both Magic Leap and HoloLens, notes that they offer competing visions for a technology that will merge virtual objects with the real world. She writes, “Both were impressive in part, but they also made me wonder whether augmented reality will become a successful commercial reality anytime soon.”

In a demonstration of MagicLeap’s technology, 3D monsters and robots looked “amazingly detailed and crisp” and fit well into the surrounding environment, but were visible only through lenses attached to a cart of bulky hardware. HoloLens, a holographic system that will take the form of a visor the size of a pair of ski goggles, had demos that let the user explore the surface of Mars or simulate using a Skype video chat to get help with a real-world project.

Magic Leap’s system has remained shrouded in secrecy, but it’s thought to rely on a form of retinal projection that evolved out of surgical research. Metz says that Magic Leap’s technology and Microsoft’s appear to work in similar ways, by using using a tiny projector to shine light at your eyes that blends in very well with the light from the real world around you.

However, Metz explains that she wasn’t blown away by the HoloLens demonstration. She writes that the impressive part of the demos was the HoloLens’s use of sensors to track where she looked and gestured. But while the holograms, at times, looked great, they more often appeared “distractingly transparent and not nearly as crisp as the creatures Magic Leap showed me some months before.”

The HoloLens also has a relatively narrow viewing area, which resulted in interruptions by glimpses of the “unenhanced world” on the periphery. The normal lighting level of the room where the demos were held also created issues. And Microsoft is still working on packing everything into the consumer-friendly form it has promised; the device Metz tried was an unfinished version, tethered to a processing unit and to a computer.

Magic Leap

Despite the issues it has to overcome, Metz believes that Microsoft is making progress toward making the technology behind HoloLens into a device that consumers can actually use and wear. “That’s not the same, though,” she notes, “as making an augmented reality device that is so useful and slickly packaged that millions of consumers will want to buy it.”  HoloLens, MagicLeap, and other competitors developing augmented reality products will need to do much more to create a truly engaging augmented reality experience in a consumer-ready device.

That’s a lofty goal with a number of formidable requirements: creating convincing virtual images, packing advanced technology into a practical and portable wearable device, ensuring that the environment continues to look good as the user moves around, and finding a practical way to power it.

But both Microsoft and MagicLeap are optimistic that they’ll overcome those challenges. In a Reddit AMA, Magic Leap chief executive Rony Abovitz claimed that the company’s 3D augmented reality technology could one day replace smartphones, laptops, and smartwaches. Shortly thereafter, the secretive “cinematic reality” company backed out of two high-profile appearances: a March 17 Reddit AMA with Magic Leap chief creative officer Graeme Devine and a March 18 TED talk with Magic Leap chief executive Rony Abovitz. Magic Leap public relations head Andy Fouche this week emailed press a video the company planned to share at the TED talk, writing, “This is a game we’re playing around the office right now (no robots were harmed in the making of this video).”

Magic Leap’s video prominently features the logo of Weta Workshop, the special effects studio behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The game in the video features the branding of Dr. Grordbort, a line of steampunk-styled guns, comics, and other products. The Verge’s Adi Robertson notes that Dr. Grordbort was created by an artist at Weta Workshop, which has been known to be a partner of Magic Leap. The game is an augmented reality shooter in which real decorative guns turn into virtual weapons to be used against enemies projected into the physical space around the user. The video also includes shots of a Magic Leap interface with floating YouTube videos and Gmail icons and a carousel of software options.

Fouche’s wording that the game is being played around the Magic Leap office implies that the game is real, but Robertson notes that augmented reality experiences are notoriously difficult to represent. It’s very likely that the footage is a mockup, meant to exemplify what the technology might eventually be capable of. Re/Code’s Eric Johnson notes that the video is reminiscent of the impressive first concept video for another wearable device, Google Glass, which demonstrated a much more advanced product than the one that Google ultimately unveiled.

Johnson notes that the video comes not long after Gizmodo’s Sean Hollister reported that the illustrations from Magic Leap’s sweeping patent application were ripped off from the user interface concepts of Sight, a short sic-fi film by students Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo. The patent’s illustrations carefully replicated frames of the film, but the designers who created the original UI concepts said that they’d never been contacted by Magic Leap about using their work.

Silicon Valley patent attorney John Ferrell said the situation was “highly unusual,” and it’s risky to copy an image because the Patent Office could throw out the application. But Magic Leap says that it’s only trying to patent the mechanism that creates the user interfaces:

Images like some of those we used were taken from entertainment, medical, education, commerce, and a variety of others areas. Images such as these are setting consumer expectations of VR and AR today. We wanted to use the same images to demonstrate what our technology will enable. Our patents are around the technology, not the images. We were thinking Star Wars chess could have been used too, and think how cool that would have been.

Unlike Google Glass, or Microsoft’s HoloLens, no MagicLeap hardware has been publicly unveiled. It’s impossible to determine what the technology will be capable of when it hits the market, but taking companies’ demo videos at face value may not be the best way to determine what the first stages of augmented reality will look like.

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