This week AR hype machine Magic Leap will finally – finally! – start selling its headset to the public but you'll need to go to one of three AT&T stores in Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, to buy them. And fork over more than $2,000 to get a pair.
Thanks to the company's effort to build buzz in the tech community, we finally got to try the glasses on without having to sign an NDA or go to its headquarters in Florida because it was giving demos at the Intel Capital conference in Phoenix on Monday night.
It's been eight years since the company first started promising to revolutionize pretty much everything. But it missed deadline after deadline, in large part because it can't make a critical component of its system work.
Well, we can exclusively reveal, that, yeah, it still hasn't fixed it. So if you want to fork over $2,295 for something that will, most likely, become obsolete almost as soon as you put it on, then go ahead. But don't say you haven't been warned.
Here's the truth: the Magic Leap headset is actually quite nice. It is not like the big, bulky VR headsets that we occasionally try on, it's pretty light. And it fits comfortably, although you have to wear it at a weird angle, so it feels a little like when your glasses droop off your nose.
Talking of glasses, it won't work with them. But Magic Leap has worked around that by producing a series of lens inserts in a range of strengths. Except the one that worked best for this reporter's eyesight didn't fit. Why? Because it was designed for the "1" headset and not the "2" headset.
What does that mean? We asked the guy doing the demos – Magic Leap actually has two sizes of its headset – to accommodate for different sized heads (different sized spaces between people's eyes). Someone had only shipped the size 1 lens additions and I needed a size 2 headset and lens. If you think that this is all a bit fussy, that's because it is.
But aside from the fact that, as a result, everything projected at more than three or four feet away was a bit blurry, there are other issues. The field of view of really quite narrow, so you frequently feel the need to move your head up and down – something that gets tiresome after a while.
Track and field
The biggest issue though is what we have long warned about with Magic Leap: tracking is off, and slow. Because the Magic Leap One is an augmented reality (AR) headset, you can see through the goggles to the real world and images are presented as holograms in front of you.
This is actually rather pleasant compared to the disorientation you experience in a closed-off VR headset, like the Oculus, but it is darker than we wanted. If feels a little like you are walking around in a room just after sunset; you persistently want to turn a light on.
Anyway, because you can see through to the real world, we were able to see the problem with tracking first hand with the little controller that goes with the system. What was cool, and in fact, rather lovely was that an exact image of the controller appeared in light through the headset and moves as you move it in your hand.
You can compare where the virtual controller is compared to where you are actually holding it. If you look at both, the tracking becomes immediately apparent: when you move the controller, the virtual image lags behind it. The faster and further you move it, the longer it takes to catch up.
This isn't really a problem in an experiential sense, it just makes you feel a little like you're in a laggy computer simulation. But it is a huge problem if Magic Leap wants to achieve its main goal – to play games over the headset.
There were three demos to play with. Notably, each one was on a different headset and you had to put on the right headset to view it, suggesting that there is some delay in going between applications. But more importantly, each demo was static.
We tried two: one lets you see a human skeleton and select and move parts of it around. It's easy to see why people get excited about Magic Leap and keep piling money into the company – the images are like Star Wars holograms. Solid, fun.
Another app was a rendition of a virtual building which, again, was quite engrossing because you were able to walk through it – architects would love it and the company rep said the system will work with most CAD files, so it is all too possible to imagine people testing out and walking around large-scale architectural designs, or even digitally rendered furniture.
But they were static – nothing moved in the virtual world unless you decided to move it. Which draws some pretty strong limitations around the headset.
We wanted to test another key constraint – that the further away an object is, the harder it is to be accurately rendered due to the way Magic Leap's system works. But it was hard to do so because, thanks to not having the right size lenses for the right size headset, it was already a little blurry.
In short, the experience was exactly what we expected. And in answer to each of our questions about the limitations, the answer was, of course, it will be fixed in the next version of the headset.
It is notable that even before the Magic Leap One was released in strictly limited quantities to specific people who, laughably, were obliged to place them in a safe each night, CEO Rony Abovitz was already fund-raising for the second version.
It may happen. Magic Leap may get enough financial backing to finally do what it hasn't been able to achieve for eight years and fix the tracking issue while expanding the field of view. Maybe. But we're not holding our breath.
A better Google Glass
North is selling its non-creepy version of Google Glass: a pair of glasses with a small projected image that connects to your phone and gives you updates.
We tried them out. It's pretty good. You have a small patch of information appear in front of your right eye a perceived six feet away. It provides you with the time and date and then you can use the app to choose what other alerts you want to receive.
You're not going to want to have your Twitter feed connected but it could be very useful for incoming calls, or your calendar, or walking directions – all of which were demonstrated and worked well.
Again though, there are constraints. As with Magic Leap, human beings eyes and faces are non-uniform so each pair of glasses has to be made to work well with your face. The company has a mobile unit where you sit down and its takes photos of your face to create a custom set of glasses. And it has two stores – one in Toronto, one in Brooklyn and one that will apparently open in the Bay Area soon.
All this customization is not cheap: the glasses will cost $599 non-prescription and $799 with a prescription. We're not sure that someone who doesn't have to wear glasses will want to do so – and pay $600 – just to get occasional updates in front of their eyes rather than look at their phone.
And, as anyone who wears glasses every day will tell you, you will at some point drop them. And keep dropping them for as long as you have them. Glasses are not cheap: they range from cheap frames at $100 or so up to $1,000 or so for designer brands. But they do tend to be pretty robust. How long By North's glasses would stand up to daily punishment, it's not clear.
Oh, and there is only one design: the classic Ray-Ban style. Although it does come in several colors. The truth is that this glasses-wearing reporter was tempted to get a pair at the special conference price of $250 (presumably the unit cost to the company) but ultimately, it just seemed like a lot of trouble just so I didn’t have to pull out my phone.
Bye bye blur
And lastly – blurry images. We spoke to another company, Almalence which promises to alleviate one of the most frustrating aspects of VR headsets – poor resolution.
The CEO of the company saw the story we wrote recently about Facebook's new Oculus headset in which we complained about the fact that it still feel like you are staring at a phone screen in front of your face.
Almalence’s argument follows the same thread as the issue that Magic Leap and North are struggling with – the imperfection of the human eye/face structure, especially when objects are very close.
Talking of AR headset and blurriness, there are another two companies at Intel Capital doing interesting things in this field.
VR headsets don't account for the fact that your eyeballs are also lenses and so the images you seen on headset screens get a bit blurry. So the idea is to adjust the screen to account for that. It uses a software algorithm to adjust the feed in real time and, based on the demo that we had, it works. Their system provides a much sharper and rounded image, which make the whole virtual environment feel less artificial and more comfortable.
Of course, it was their demo so they could well be exaggerating the impact of its software adjustment. But here's where it might be exciting – and might solve big problems for everyone: the Almalence reps agreed that, yes, theoretically, their system could be use to adjust the image you see to account for people's eyesight.
In other words, rather than having to figure out how to deal with people's varying eyesight, you could create a software model to adjust an image for you to fit their eyesight. That could massively significantly simplify headset design.
In summary: people are continuing to plug away at AR and VR and they are making progress. But we're waiting until next year before we vote with our wallet.