Opinion by Mike Elgan

Sorry, gamers. Magic Leap means business!

Everybody thinks Magic Leap's mixed-reality system is going to turn our homes into the movie ‘Avatar.’ It's actually headed for boardrooms and corporate meetings.

Magic Leap

Opinion by Mike Elgan

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Magic Leap is finally here.

After seven years of rumors, speculation and hype (not to mention $2.3 billion in funding from major companies like Google), Magic Leap this week started selling a real product you can buy.

And I'm here to do a magic trick of my own: I'm going to make your misconceptions about Magic Leap disappear!

The hardware bundle in detail

The Magic Leap One Creator Edition is available on the Magic Leap website for $2,295. The headset weighs just under a pound and comes in two sizes based on head size and eye distance. Both sizes come with removable, variably sized and shaped nose and forehead rests. It gets about three hours of battery life.

In the box you get the headset, the Control handheld input device, the Lightpack computing pack, a Fit Kit for optimizing fit, chargers, a Quick Start Guide and a one-year limited warranty.

The Lightpack is the "computer" part – an Nvidia Parker system-on-a-chip with a Tegra X2 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Round and flat, the Lightpack looks like two portable CD players from 15 years ago that open clamshell-style to clip into pants. It can also hang from a strap and is connected to the headset via cabling.

The controller is a pretty typical VR-type one-handed peripheral that provides haptic feedback. It's got a trigger, another button above the trigger on the front, a home button and a round touchpad surrounded by 12 multicolor LED lights.

The Magic Leap One headset won't fit over prescription glasses, but the option to insert prescription lenses option is coming. (Unfortunately, the headset may not be able to physically accommodate prescriptions that require especially thick lenses.)

The Magic Leap store also sells a $60 hub for transferring data to a computer and charging the battery; a Fit Kit for $40; shoulder straps for $30; extra Lightpack chargers for $60; and extra controllers for $290.

A "Professional Development Edition" cost $495, which is weird because both the "regular" and "pro" versions are, in fact, for developers. That buys you an extra "hub cable" and a service plan called "RapidReplace."

In order to buy one, you have to live or work in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, the Silicon Valley or Seattle. Elsewhere in the U.S., you can make a reservation and hope for the best. Magic Leap has not announced any timing for sales outside the U.S.

Magic Leap delivers. Literally. The company will bring your new unit to you, fit it to your face and set it all up for you free of charge using their "LiftOff" service. Like Lenscrafters, it takes about an hour. ("LiftOff" service is provided in collaboration with a company called Enjoy, which was founded by former Apple retail head Ron Johnson.)

Magic Leap also announced a few core applications: These include a 3D web browser called Helio, a video app called Screens and an app for avatars called Social. They also released new demos.

The Magic Leap experience

The biggest difference between the experience of using Magic Leap One devices and the YouTube demos is 3D, which is impressive – and in one respect superior to VR 3D.

In VR, everything is in focus all the time. In Magic Leap, however, the technology makes your eyes change focus when switching from a near object to a far one, so the 3D is more convincing.

Magic Leap One shows you a narrower field of view than, say, typical VR experiences. Computer-generated objects appear only in a small portion of the room. Magic Leap emphasizes that it's a "cone" of vision. Near objects have to be small. But you can see a life-size dinosaur if it's far enough away.

A depth sensor constantly scans and maps the room and the objects inside it, so content can "interact" with the room. For example, virtual animals can jump off the floor and onto a chair -- or behind it. Tiny buildings on a table look like they're solidly anchored to the table, even as you walk around to see them at different angles.

Like Microsoft's HoloLens, the device refines its room maps over multiple passes, and stores those maps in the cloud for future use – including for use by other users with their own Magic Leap One headsets. Once a room is mapped, it's mapped for every user.

You can use your hands to interact with floating objects.

Critics and reviewers say the Magic Leap One experience is generally superior to Microsoft HoloLens – which is neither impressive nor surprising, given that HoloLens shipped two years ago.

Making the leap to business

Everyone, including probably Magic Leap, seems to believe that Magic Leap will be all about fun and games. But it won't be. Magic Leap is far more likely to excel in the business arena, as well as in the healthcare, design and military markets.

I think the Pentagon is going to buy these by the truckload. Consumers? Not so much.

That may surprise you, because nearly all the "content" we've been shown so far is confectionery. The demos are: fish swimming through the air, sci-fi experiences like playing music by running fingers through what looks like electric sea grass and 3D doodling, flying saucers, dinosaurs and a tiny Lebron James dunking a basketball.

Eye candy is not a use case, however. The demos are designed for two purposes: to showcase various technological capabilities and to make you go "wow."

That "wow" factor lasts about 10 minutes. Then what?

Of course, some real consumer use cases are demoed.

One of the coolest is a 3D browser called Helio. That browser uses a JavaScript library called Prismatic that enables 3D objects that can be grabbed and pulled out of the browser and into the room, where they become life-size 3D objects. The most obvious application is a furniture catalog, where you can move a couch from the browser to your living room, resize it and place it where it would go. Great for shopping, right?

Well, no. It's unrealistic because hardly any consumers will have Magic Leap headsets.

Magic Leap is much too expensive to gain significant numbers of gamers, for example. At current pricing, it's 10 times the price of an Xbox and five times the price of an Oculus Rift. And it won't have a sizable library of games available for years.

Sure, the price could come down, though there's no reason to believe it will. The developer version of the Oculus Rift was cheaper than the shipping consumer version.

By the time mixed-reality games emerge, VR games will already offer far higher-resolution and far more immersive experiences that will be preferred by gamers – at lower cost.

And Magic Leap headsets are not for casual use. It takes about an hour for a knowledge expert to fit the headset (in the same way and for the same reason an optometrist fits glasses). And this process must take place for each new user. That is not a consumer-friendly proposition.

Magic Leap shipped Wednesday, and reviewers are already bored with it. Just look at the headlines. The Verge called it a "flawed glimpse of mixed reality's amazing future." Fast Company said that "much of the excitement and cool factor around Magic Leap is now gone."

What's happening is that these same reviewers have been trying HoloLens, VR and other augmented reality products for a few years. Because the novelty of all this is gone, Magic Leap didn't "blow them away."

The naysaying isn't based on market analysis. It's based on the observations of a few jaded journalists eager to appear as skeptical critics.

They're answering the question: "How do I, a professional gadget fan, feel about this?" Not: "What are the real-world applications for this for the people or businesses willing to pay for it?"

So I'll answer that question: Magic Leap is the ultimate meeting technology. Here’s why.

How to mix reality

In order to understand Magic Leap's appeal to businesses, governments and other organizations, you have to understand its actual benefits beyond the visual experience.

The most powerful of these is multitasking.

magicleap2 Magic Leap

With Magic Leap, business users will be able to multitask by combining PC-like "window" screens, which float in space, with shared-reality 3D objects and animations.

Magic Leap's operating system is called Lumin OS and is based on the Lumis Core Linux kernel. Lumin-native apps can multitask, but those created with 3D engines like Unity and Unreal (also supported by Magic Leap) cannot.

Developers can create four kinds of apps for Magic Leap.

The first are landscape apps, and they execute in what Magic Leap calls 2D prisms. They're like "windows" for desktop computing, but they live in 3D space, which is to say that if you step to the side, they no longer face you. These include video screens, desktop-like app windows, floating buttons or icons that launch stuff when you poke at them in the air, and others. (It should be trivial to port existing desktop PC applications and mobile apps into landscape Magic Leap apps.)

The second are 3D prism apps, where you create 3D objects or experiences that operate within a limited, invisible 3D space. These "prisms" can be placed and positioned in the room, and they maintain that orientation. Imagine an aquarium full of water containing fish, but without the aquarium or the water. The fish would swim in that 3D space, but would be limited by the unseen aquarium, which itself is positioned in space.

The third kind of app is an "immersive" app. Rather than being contained in prisms, these apps live in the whole room, interacting with furniture and other objects therein. These are the "wow factor" gaming apps that currently dominate the demos.

And the fourth and most interesting kind of Magic Leap apps are called casting apps. These are 3D prism apps that are shared by multiple people in the same room. If two people are facing each other, and there's a virtual car between them and one person is looking at the front of the car, the other person can look at the rear of the same car. Anyone can walk around, and they all see the car in 3D space as if it were really there.

The "killer app" for Magic Leap is combining the first app type with the last. Imagine any kind of meeting where everyone in the room sees the same 3D virtual object, scene or concept. This could appear on a boardroom table, or on the stage of a large meeting hall.

The presenter could pop-up an unlimited number of 2D screens to augment the 3D information. Each participant could have their own 2D windows visible only to themselves, with notes, email, web searches – whatever they need.

The Magic Leap One's notoriously narrow "cone" of content is fatal to gaming, but no problem at all for meetings where the whole point is to focus attention.

One way to think about the ability of Magic Leap to offer multitasking 2D screens is to imagine a world where PC displays were free. How many would you use? Where would you put them?

Magic Leap tech won't thrill gamers or consumers. But it could totally transform the quality of meetings and work in a few years.

While Magic Leap is selling the first version now, the company is working on the next two versions, which are expected to be much smaller and lighter. Magic Leap Two will probably be aimed at consumers and support 5G.

I believe Magic Leap Three will be the one for enterprises. And it will be killer.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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