After almost four years of work, Magic Leap is showing off its next generation of augmented reality glasses for enterprise applications.
I got to try it on this week at a demo in San Francisco, and I was pretty impressed at the advances the headset showed after the first generation debuted — sadly to much criticism — in 2018.
Founded in 2010 by Rony Abovitz, the company set out to be a pioneer in augmented reality and mixed reality technologies. Abovitz raised $2.6 billion in multiple rounds and developed the Magic Leap One, a mixed reality headset that debuted in August 2018.
But sales were slow for the $2,295 device, as consumers didn’t dive into the expensive tech. Finally, in April 2020, Magic Leap decided to shut down its consumer division and laid off about 1,000 employees, or half its workforce. In May 2020, Abovitz announced he would replace himself as CEO (while staying on the board) just as the company got a major lifeline with a $350 million raise.
And Microsoft veteran Peggy Johnson became CEO. She noted the company still has 1,000 employees and it has begun recruiting back some of the people who left. Manufacturing of trial headsets has begun, and it has a 92% yield rate on the 2,000 headsets produced so far.
“We tried to take everything we learned from Magic Leap One from the enterprise users and built the improvements into Magic Leap 2,” Johnson said.
Johnson showed me the new headset and talked about what the company is driving for. The exact price isn’t set yet, but it will probably cost close to the $2,300 of the original one. But maybe that isn’t a crazy price, now that Magic Leap is targeting enterprises instead of consumers.
And now that the metaverse is all the rage, rivals such as Meta, Apple, and Microsoft are in hot pursuit of Magic Leap’s market. Johnson said she believes the Magic Leap 2 will be the most advanced enterprise platform for immersive AR when it debuts later this year.
I asked Johnson what she thought of all of the metaverse talk now. Much of that has been focused on virtual reality, Johnson said. But she noted that AR has a lot of promise to marry the digital world and the physical world. That’s why she is excited about things like Nvidia’s Omniverse and digital twins, where industrial companies can design a factory in the metaverse and perfect it before building an exact copy in the physical world.
“Nvidia is very aligned with us on the open standards as well,” said Julie Larson-Green, chief technology officer at Magic Leap, in an interview. “We’re definitely looking into that.”
The new device has made a big leap forward in optical performance, with a 70-degree field of view (FOV: 44.6 x 53.6 x 66º) compared to the original’s 50 degrees. That means you can see a wider swath of a scene when you look through the glasses, but you still have to move your head around to see a full 180-degree view of your surroundings. I saw a comparison of the field of view, and it was far better with the new headset.
I found that the imagery was pretty sharp as I looked at a live demo of a wildfire. Positioned on a table, I could see a topographical map of mountains and a plain where a wildfire was starting. While simulated, the app was based on real data from a fire, and it showed how a firefighter commander could survey the landscape and see the fire spread over time across a landscape toward city. The wind was visualized in a way that showed the city at risk, and the firefighter had to send helicopters to drop loads on the part of the fire that that threatened the city.
You could also zoom out in the demo and look at data about wildfires around the globe and visually see where they were concentrated.
It really was like a dynamic way of viewing the fluid movements of the wildfire, and I could see it better because of the immersive simulation. At the same time, the AR glasses, in contrast to virtual reality headsets, did not obstruct my peripheral vision or my view of the real world. The demo of the global wildfire map was placed on a wall, and the wildfire closeup was projected on a round table in the real world.
Big technical improvements
Since the field of view was wider, I didn’t have to move my head back and forth so much. And the 32 layers of the lenses have dimmer planes that mean you can use the headset indoors, in a dark room, or outside. That “dynamic dimming” feature is a big improvement over the first headset, which could only be used indoors.
Johnson said the team had to review feedback, such as the complaints about outdoor usage, and solve the problems that got rid of some of the first device’s limitations.
The Magic Leap 2 can reach up to 2,000 nits of brightness, this still isn’t enough to compete with direct sunlight. And making the display even brighter would have required consuming more power, in a bigger form factor. So the company turned dynamic dimming capabilities. Magic Leap 2 is the first general purpose AR device to feature dimmers integrated into the optical stack. This enables two types of dimming capabilities. Global dimming with the Magic Leap 2 can dim the entire environment to ensure clear, solid, and vibrant digital content in bright areas. The dimmer can automatically adjust based on the brightness in the room and the brightness of the projector. And it has segmented dimming for more local control.
And while the device still uses proprietary optics, its operating system is based on an open source version of Android with some custom features that enable it to take advantage of sensors. There are nine cameras in the system, including a couple on the hand controller. Four of the cameras point at your eyes to track your eye movement.
These cameras can keep a much better fix on your location and where your hand is, even if it is behind your back. That’s because the hand controller uses infrared tracking sensors in addition to the cameras. The IR sensors track the controller if the cameras don’t see it, leading to more precise control.
he device also has 3D audio that works pretty good. Magic Leap showed a lengthy demo that showed how it can position the sound so that it seems close to you or far away. That’s important when you’re talking to multiple people in a room and you need to hear which one is speaking to you. If you can identify the sound coming from a particular direction, you can turn to that person and hear them more clearly.
The headset is about 20% lighter at 248 grams, or half a pound (and about half the weight of the HoloLens 2). And it doesn’t weigh down on your head the way a big VR headset does. A strap that goes across your head and the band that goes around the back of your head help it stay on tight and make it easy to put on or off.
The battery life is about 3.5 hours, compared to about two hours before. The volume of the device is about half of what it was before.
The Magic Leap 2 will still have a puck that put in your pocket. You connect it with a wire to the headset, which has the optics but doesn’t have any electronics that burn out. The puck has the battery and the computer, which is now powered by an x86-based semi-custom processor from Advanced Micro Devices. It’s a quad-core Zen 2 processor with more than three times the processor of the previous Arm-based processor.
A doctor can actually wear a larger battery strapped to the back. And then the doctor can use the headset for a much longer operation, perhaps as long as eight hours.
“You can think of it more as a PC on your eyes, it’s got that kind of power versus say a smartphone chip,” Johnson said. “It gives us a lot of flexibility. We have one company in the medical space that does cardiac catheterization and there you’re actually looking at the live heart in 3D while you’re placing the catheter. So there’s a lot of processing power that is going on here that we have the capability of with the with the new AMD chip.”
Magic Leap also says that the design is aimed at more comfortable viewing so you can wear it for hours longer than in the past. It has tried to minimize common sources of eye strain for comfortable viewing and viewing both near and far virtual objects in a single focal plane.
The text is more legible without eyestrain. It’s designed to be something that workers — like doctors, manufacturing workers, oil and gas workers, architects, engineers, and other enterprise employees — can use every day.
“The whole field of human factors is something that the company has been involved in since the start. And so it’s been around almost 11 years for Magic Leap. And there’s been a lot of things where there wasn’t any research, and now there are a variety of things we’ve learned over the years that are built into the device,” Johnson said.
While I wear glasses, I took them off for the demo and found a prescription eyepiece that I could put in front of the lenses so I could see much more clearly. Magic Leap will make those prescription eyepieces available for customers. You just drop it in and it stays secure in place.
Making the Magic Leap 2
Johnson said the manufacturing investment is behind the company. The company is manufacturing the devices in Florida, focusing on high quality and efficiency. Johnson said much of the investment that went into the second generation was all about developing the updated technology. Magic Leap estimates it came make more than 100,000 headsets a year in its factory.
Magic Leap found that the currently available projector options (uLED arrays, laser-scan-based systems, LCoS panels) were not sufficient. These projectors were either too large, consumed too much power, or led to a Pandora’s box of image artifacts. The team developed a new projector architecture and eyepiece design.
Looking ahead to the Magic Leap 3, the company believes it can get to an 80-degree field of view.
“Our engineers have a line of sight to doubling it again,” Larson-Green said.
A case study
Johnson said the headset will cost about the same as the $2,300 version from 2018, but she said the device can still save enterprises a lot of money when it comes to tasks such as training.
One of the customers using the headsets is PBC Linear, a linear motion manufacturing company in Illinois. It needed to train new employees in its complex manufacturing processes. The company said it got significant improvements in quality, savings, implementation times, and maintenance— all while improving employee recruitment and retention.Step-by-step, guided work instructions were created and enhanced with photos, videos, and 3D diagrams. Frontline workers could then complete tasks by donning the Magic Leap AR headset where these step-by-step instructions appear within their field of vision. When needed, PBC Linear was able to rehire retired expert employees on a part-time basis to work with the interns and provide specific expertise and advice on specific operational procedures.
The whole project took less than six weeks and required no programming or custom development. Now, PBC Linear can make new workers competent and confident to manufacture products in just three days, whereas traditional
non-AR methods required approximately three weeks of training for a dedicated trainer, due to limited trainer availability. That’s an 80% reduction in training time and a savings of more than $7,200 per machinist and $5,760 per
intern as a result of more efficient onboarding. Additionally, PBC Linear is realizing more than $6,080 in savings per training manager.
With such results, Johnson said that the company feels more optimistic. Larson-Green ran the hardware division and did many other jobs at Microsoft. Johnson lured her out of retirement to be CTO at Microsoft, while Daniel Diaz, the chief marketing officer, is one of those who came back to Magic Leap. With the team, Johnson said the team was able to work on a more predictable development cadence.
“We have people coming back now,” Johnson said.
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