Two years ago, we tested the Microsoft HoloLens Development Edition. This first foray into Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality system offered a fascinating look at how augmented reality (not virtual reality; there’s a difference) can be used to educate, entertain, and enable research. It worked well enough for a developers-only headset and an early implementation of bleeding-edge technology, but its downright tiny field of view limited the immersion of the experience, and as a one-piece headset it was pretty heavy to wear.
Around that same time, a startup called Magic Leap was working on its own wearable display. Over a year later, after raising more than $ 2 billion in venture capital, the Magic Leap One was announced, and today it’s finally available. The Magic Leap One is an augmented reality display in the same vein as the HoloLens, but sleeker, lighter, and with a much better field of view. It’s also development hardware, only available to qualified parties for the hefty price tag of $ 2,295.
Since the Magic Leap One is a development headset and not intended for consumer use, this is not a scored review. Instead, we are simply analyzing it works and compares with other similar devices, what it can do in the hands of a non-developer, and what it might mean for the future of augmented reality.
Don’t Call Them Goggles
The Magic Leap One consists of the Lightwear (glasses), the Lightpack (computing core), and the Control (controller). The Lightwear looks much more friendly and cartoonish than the stark, head-covering visor of the HoloLens. It features two big, circular lenses reminiscent of Maz Kanata from Star Wars, giving the impression of giant cartoon eyes instead of experimental augmented reality technology. The large lenses enable a much larger field of view than the HoloLens; while the projection across the lenses doesn’t cover your entire eye, it takes up a very large landscape-oriented box in the center of your view, offering a much greater level of immersion than the HoloLens’ relatively small window-like projection.
The lenses are held in a large, curved, dark gray plastic frame that also holds eight separate cameras and sensors on the front. These let the Magic Leap map the area around you from multiple angles. Farther back on the plastic frame sit embedded speakers that project sound into your ears without headphones or earphones. The open speakers mean whatever you’d doing through the One can be easily heard through people around you, but you can use headphones by plugging them into the processing core, described in the next section.
The gray plastic extends around the back of the Lightwear, breaking off into three separate headband pieces connected by an elastic or spring mechanism. To put the glasses on, you pull the three pieces apart and let them close around the back of your head. The spring tension keeps the headset in place, though it isn’t quite as tight or customizable as a mechanical dial you can lock like on the PlayStation VR.
The back pieces of the headband have thick padding covered in faux leather, and the headset includes two interchangeable forehead pads and five interchangeable nosepieces for finding a comfortable fit. Magic Leap offers a personalized calibration during the white-glove delivery and setup of each device, which consists of determining which size headset you need out of two sizes, and which combination of forehead pads and nosepieces work best for you.
You can’t use glasses with the One, so some users might experience eye strain. I’m nearsighted, and while I found the display usable and fairly crisp, I did start to get a headache after about an hour of use. Magic Leap plans to release corrective lens inserts for glasses wearers.
Aside from this, the Lightwear is fairly comfortable. It’s much lighter than the HoloLens because the processing power is offloaded to a connected device rather than kept on the headset itself, and after the fitting I found it unobtrusive to wear on my glasses-free face.
Lightpack Computing Puck
The Lightwear connects through a four-foot-long cable to the Lightpack, the One’s processing core. The Lightwear holds all of the display and sensor technology, and the Lightpack holds all of the rest of the necessary hardware.
It’s a large, puck-shaped dark gray device that attaches to your belt or your pocket using a very large, rounded plastic clip. A power button on the front of the Lightpack turns the system on, illuminating an arc-shaped indicator light that shows the One’s status. Three smaller buttons for Reality and volume control sit on the edge of the Lightpack next to a headphone jack, left of where the Lightwear cable is attached. The underside of the Lightpack is lined with vents, and Magic Leap recommends keeping it on the outside of pockets and belts to ensure airflow. A USB-C port on the bottom edge of the Lightpack enables charging with the included power adapter, or connecting to a computer with the Magic Leap Hub accessory.
Inside the Lightpack, an Nvidia Parker-based system-on-a-chip (SOC) with two Denver 2.0 cores and four ARM Cortex A57 cores drives the Magic Leap, supported with an Nvidia Pascal GPU, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of onboard storage. Because it’s such a unique piece of equipment, we can’t benchmark it and compare it with similar devices, but on paper, this is equivalent to a fairly powerful smartphone.
The last big part of the One is the controller, which surprisingly isn’t called the Lightstick or Lightwand, but just Control. It’s a six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) motion controller shaped like a simple, curved plastic wand that expands to a round bulb shape near one end.
The top of the remote is dominated by a circular trackpad, below which sits the home button. Two trigger buttons on the underside of the remote provide the rest of the physical controls. It feels more like an air mouse than a VR controller like the HTC Vive motion controllers or Oculus Touch controls, and only one is included to work with the One. It’s still much more functional than the HoloLens’ simple, clickable remote and reliance on hand-based gestures.
Magic Leap Interface
The One uses Magic Leap’s own AR user interface, and as development hardware it’s clear the company hopes to see additional software come from users experimenting with the device. It functions very similarly to the Windows Mixed Reality interface of the HoloLens, but with a much friendlier menu design based around circles as opposed to Metro’s stark square tiles.
Pressing the home button brings up a ring-shaped menu of apps, which you can select with the touchpad. Scrolling upward with the touchpad moves the cursor from the ring to a row of system icons to access settings and toggle wireless connectivity and other features. The menu appears in front of your position whenever you press the home button, and remains in that position until you press the button again; it doesn’t follow in front of your face as you move.
As for visuals, the One projects a fairly large, bright image. Even without glasses, I found the picture fairly clear and sharp. Colors look a bit muted, which is unsurprising because the technology relies on reflecting an image on mostly transparent lenses, but bright objects still appear bright. The light, color, and clarity of are comparable with the HoloLens, but the larger field of view greatly improves the experience.
Mapping Your Surroundings
To keep track of where to put different augmented reality objects relative to you, the One constantly maps your surroundings with its multiple cameras and sensors built around the lenses. When you aren’t running specific software, you can toggle a display of the different contours the One detects, which appear as a grid of white dots covering the walls, floor, furniture, and anything else around you.
The mapping technology is impressive when it works, tracking all of the walls and sundry objects nearby to clearly figure out where to display software windows and objects. In good conditions, the One can map everything in your view up to a few feet ahead in seconds. Unfortunately, those good conditions were rare in our tests.
The sensors trip up over dark or reflective surfaces, which is a problem in our test lab consisting of wide, dark gray benches and floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Even in a completely glass-free room, dark walls made the One stumble and take much longer to find corners and edges.
This is development hardware, which means developers have yet to actually make a serious quantity of software for the platform. Currently, only a small handful of apps are available on the Magic Leap One, and they’re mostly proof of concept demos rather than anything particularly useful or built up into a long-lasting entertainment experience.
Helio is Magic Leap’s web browser, similar to Edge’s implementation on the HoloLens. Like Edge, it simply displays a window floating in midair that serves as a browser window, letting you enter any URL and browse with the remote using normal touchpad controls.
You can also use Helio to access AR-friendly sites. These pages can pop up new windows and elements around you, but they didn’t seem particularly reliable or consistent. Wayfair.com, for example, showed a handful of chairs that I assumed I would be able to place around the room to see how they would look. Instead, every interaction I had simply opened a new floating, two-dimensional window.
The browser is also very buggy. It crashed repeatedly when trying to load pages, it often had difficulty figuring out I wanted to use the touchpad to move the on-screen mouse cursor instead of the main Magic Leap interface cursor, and even when it worked pages tended to load very slowly even on a 5GHz Wi-Fi network.
The Screens app offers access to a selection of 2D visual experiences, similar to how Helio works but with downloaded media instead of web pages. The Whales and Wallpaper options scatter a handful of floating windows in front of you, showing still images and videos of whales (for the former) or other things (for the latter). An NBA experience, meanwhile, shows video highlights in a single floating window.
Tónandi is an artistic and musical experience separate from Helios or Screens. It’s a collaboration with Sigur Rós that surrounds you with floating fish based on the geography of the room you’re in. Ethereal music plays as fish swim around you, giving a sense of a minimalistic view of Pandora from Avatar. The app features hand-based motion tracking similar to the gesture control of the HoloLens. If you reach out in front of the One to touch the fish, they react by scattering and swarming around you. It isn’t a very consistent effect, but it is striking.
Project Create is Magic Leap’s current centerpiece app, serving as the most complex and engaging tech demo available. It’s a combination of a 3D painting program and a physics-intensive version of the placeable holograms on the HoloLens. It simply lets you draw in the air in front of you or place a variety of 3D objects and 2D stickers around your surroundings. The paintbrushes draw streamers in the air with a variety of colors and textures, moving in space thanks to the 6DOF motion controller. Stickers can be applied to walls and surfaces just by pointing the controller like a remote.
The 3D objects are where Project Create gets really interesting. These objects are physics-based and affected by gravity, which makes placing them around the room and playing with them much more complicated and game-like than you first expect. Blocks fall on the floor if you don’t place them carefully. Slides and ramps stick to surfaces and let balls roll wherever you want. Little knights and dinosaurs roam around your couch and coffee table.
Besides gravity and momentum physics, the 3D objects in Project Create also interact with each other in interesting ways. If you place a red knight and a blue knight on the same floor, they’ll fight each other until one disappears in a puff. If you attach a rocket booster to a block, that block will fly across the room. If you put it on a ramp and aim it at a wormhole on a wall, you end up with a makeshift augmented reality game of darts. There aren’t enough objects to build very complicated games, but it’s an interesting look at what you can do with AR and environment mapping.
Ultimately, the software selection is slim, just like on the HoloLens. Aside from this handful of demos, there’s nothing particularly useful or majorly entertaining. The biggest things you can do with either device is open web browsers in space or place 3D objects around you.
A Long Way to Go
Obviously, the Magic Leap One isn’t a consumer product. It’s a $ 2,300 set of AR glasses with an experimental interface, released to individuals and teams intent on exploring AR. And at that, the Magic Leap One is a success. The headset offers a much better field of view than the HoloLens in a much lighter package. It’s far from perfect, however, and if you’re not a developer, there’s very little you can do with the Magic Leap right now. Still, it’s an interesting early step in the development of augmented reality. We look forward to seeing where it goes from here.