Google has invested $542 million. Alibaba threw in $794 million. So what can a little startup in Fort Lauderdale possibly be doing to earn a $4.5 billion valuation? According to Magic Leap and its backers, reinventing Augmented Reality.
For all the attempts at making AR the next big thing, the only viral success has been a game. Practical uses for overlaying two-dimensional images onto our three-dimensional world seem to keep falling short. The trouble with approaches like Google Glass (other than the ridiculous form factor), is that dealing with two-dimensional and three-dimensional landscapes simultaneously is distracting. Sure the screen is in your field of view but its still a screen, and it still requires a sort of toggling of focus.
The next generation replaces Augmented Reality with Mixed Reality. MR overlays holograms instead of flat images, which improves not only how we visualize but how we explore and control what is projected. Microsoft’s Hololens and the Meta 2 are hard at work developing this technology, so why is Magic Leap so attractive to investors? It uses the best screen of all: Your brain.
Your brain is like a graphics processor. Particles of light called photons enter the eye, and the brain makes sense of and “displays” them. Rather than replace this greatest of displays with something inferior, Magic Leap projects its own photons into the eye. The heavy lifting is done by a photonics chip that blends a digital light field with our existing real-world light field. The result is a field of view where the virtual seems to co-exist with the real. One hologram can hide behind a table while another walks across it. Items floating by still feel as thought they are moving through the same space you are occupying. As you look around a room they even go in and out of focus like real world items.
The other potential advantage with a photonics chip is a less ridiculous headset. Magic Leap wants to forgo the painfully bulky headsets of its competitors for a slimmer form factor you might actually be willing to wear in public.
The potential for gaming with MR is obvious, but a virtual overlay that truly integrates with rather than competes against our perception of the world could revolutionize the way we use computers. Not right away of course, even with its massive backing. But if the technology delivers and refines, we may look back at screens as a distraction of the past.