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Magic Leap’s CEO On His ‘Experiential Computer’ That Blends Tech and Reality

5 minute read

It’s been more than three years since mysterious startup Magic Leap started making headlines in 2014 after attracting investments from some of the tech industry’s most prominent names, like Google and Andreessen Horowitz. This was all despite the fact that the company hadn’t unveiled even a prototype device. That changed on Wednesday, when Magic Leap finally debuted its first product: a pair of “mixed reality” goggles called Magic Leap One that it says will ship in 2018.

Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz has been notoriously vague about his company’s product and the way it works until this point. Even after the big reveal, there are still many lingering questions, including how much it will cost, exactly when it will be released, and precisely what it is that makes the headset different than competing products. But Abovitz is at least making clear his rationale for creating Magic Leap One in the first place: In his view, people want gadgets that help them stay present in the real world, while simultaneously letting them reap the benefits of high-powered, always-connected tech.

“Our theory is that in the next decade, people will value relationships, connecting with each other, [and] good life experiences over data, information, and even possessions,” Abovitz said in an interview with TIME on Wednesday. “We’re trying to balance what it means to be a person and to have a very natural way to still be in the world and have this powerful application and capability.”

Abovitz is one of many technologists hoping to shake up the way we interact with our gadgets. Tech companies big and small have been proclaiming for years that emerging fields like augmented and virtual reality will open up all kinds of new possibilities. By strapping into a headset, they say, you could travel to Machu Picchu without leaving your couch, or project virtual fictional characters onto your bedroom floor. (Though purists, of course, will say nothing compares to the real thing.) Abovitz seems unfazed by the fact that one tech behemoth in particular, Microsoft, has been promoting a similar technology called the HoloLens since 2015. “We are building this from scratch only to do this,” he says, although he declined to comment specifically on products made by other companies. “We’re not bringing along any other operating systems.” (The HoloLens is powered by a version of Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system.)

What Abovitz is dreaming up with Magic Leap appears to be more ambitious than other attempts — but perhaps unsettling in a Black Mirror sort of way. Magic Leap’s headset, which Abovitz refers to as an “experiential computer,” isn’t about overlaying graphics or encapsulating the wearer in an imaginary world. It’s about advancing toward a future in which we never truly unplug. “We wanted to create the possibility that you have everything the world offers, and everything the computing world offers in a way that’s much more ambient, much more seamlessly integrated, [that] doesn’t take you out of the world,” he says.

Hardware-wise, the Magic Leap One is a headset computer powered by a portable pack housing a processor that can be clipped to your clothing. It also comes with a motion-sensitive remote control, useful for gaming, navigating interfaces and so on. Abovitz says the Magic Leap One’s battery life is comparable to a high-end tablet, although that will likely fluctuate depending how the headset is being used. “If you’re just going to kick back and and watch a movie, that’s very different than chasing a robot or a dinosaur around your house or filling your whole home with fish that swim from room to room,” he says. Magic Leap will be conducting more testing and battery optimizations ahead of the headset’s launch.

Magic Leap’s headset differs from Microsoft’s HoloLens and the virtual reality Oculus Rift headset in how it generates the virtual objects you’ll see when looking through the eyewear. Rather than showing images or video on displays, Magic Leap uses a method that generates virtual objects using light field technology, similar to the way your eyes and brain work together to render what you see in reality. “It’s not the kind of thing you can take a picture of or even write about,” he says. “It’s like writing about jazz.” The simplest way to describe how Magic Leap’s light field tech works in the headset, says Abovtiz, is to “think of it as having a computer where the brain is an important part of the display output.”

Perhaps not since Google Glass debuted in 2012 has a device seen as much hype as Magic Leap’s headset. What ultimately prevented Google’s augmented reality glasses from being a hit with consumers was its lack of focus: Eyewear that projects digital images over your surroundings makes plenty of sense in hospitals and factories where having hands-free access to information is important. But it didn’t offer a meaningful enough experience to justify the price for everyday buyers.

That’s in part why Magic Leap is calling the first version of its headset the “Creator Edition,” and is gearing it toward developers and content makers. Magic Leap’s technology is currently optimized for use at home or at the office rather than while strolling down the street — although Abovitz speculates that “experiments” in using the eyewear outdoors will likely surface when the product ships. When that happens, Magic Leap will be watching closely to see how people react. “We want to really learn how everyone behaves, that was the goal with Magic Leap One,” says Abovitz, who also noted the company is already working on the second version. “We want to learn how social life adjusts.”

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