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Five burning questions about Magic Leap after Wired's huge profile

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Cloning the GPU of the brain

Wired ran an enormous profile on mysterious AR startup Magic Leap today, written by legendary tech journalist Kevin Kelly. It's incredible, and you should read it, if only because Kelly's obvious love and enthusiasm for virtual and augmented reality is infectious and energizing.

But the piece also raises many, many more questions about Magic Leap than it answers — and given the extreme opacity that's surrounded Magic Leap, that's pretty notable. (To catch you up: Magic Leap is a secretive company that's raised over a billion in funding from Silicon Valley giants like Google and Andreesen Horowitz, but it's never given a public demo — most of what we know comes from fantastical pitch decks buried inside patent applications.)

So here are five burning questions about Magic Leap:

1. What is Magic Leap?

Here is the only description of the actual Magic Leap technology contained in Wired's piece. The emphasis is mine:

Magic Leap's solution is an optical system that creates the illusion of depth in such a way that your eyes focus far for far things, and near for near, and will converge or diverge at the correct distances.

[...]

[Micorosoft's HoloLens, Meta, and Magic Leap all] rely on images that are projected edgeways onto a semitransparent material—usually glass with a coating of nanoscale ridges. The user sees the outside world through the glass, while the virtual elements are projected from a light source at the edge of the glass and then reflected into the user's eyes by the beam-splitting nano-ridges. Magic Leap claims that its device is unique in the way it beams light into the eye, though the company declines to explain it further at this time.

So it works like HoloLens, but it's better. Sure! HoloLens, at least as I understand it from Lauren Goode and Tom Warren, is impressive but still a little rough around the edges in its current beta form. There's definitely room to improve on it. But, uh, HoloLens has a dev kit, a ship date, runs Windows 10, and has the support and marketing power of Microsoft behind it. Is Magic Leap so much better that it can withstand being late to market? And how exactly is it better?

2. What is Magic Leap?

No, seriously. All we really know for sure is that there's a new kind of display technology involved — here's a photo Wired has of a Magic Leap engineer in a "photonics lab" doing what appears to be cool engineer stuff.

magic leap engineer

But what's running on that hardware component? Is there a giant fridge-sized supercomputer under a table somewhere? Is there a new Magic Leap OS? What's powering the experiences of "Extreme Erik" and "Creative Cara" as disclosed in leaked Magic Leap pitch decks? Is there an app platform? Is there a Netflix app? What's the Gmail integration like? The actual hardware part of VR / AR is super interesting now, but in the end all the same platform questions we learned to ask about mobile phones are going to determine the winners and losers all over again. Does Magic Leap have any answers to those questions?

3. Seriously, what is Magic Leap?

Here's a new demo video of Magic Leap, "as shot through the Magic Leap technology":

So, you know, how does that work? What did the camera rig look like? Did they really just mount the glasses on the front of a DLSR? Why can't you see the frames, or any pixels at all? How did the camera know what to focus on? Is the content we're seeing live or pre-rendered? Is that the Google Hangouts icon? Is there a Google Hangouts app or integration? Does Magic Leap know how to parse the contents of that message and then pull related data from several different sources into a coherent and organized new interface that maps the climb up Everest with multimedia annotations? That would be incredible! In fact, that would be better than almost any digital assistant currently available. Does Magic Leap have better AI assistant technology than Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Now? In addition to its incredible new display technology? Wow.

Also: is the future AR really just kickass edutainment CD-ROMs?

4. What do these words about Magic Leap mean?

"Your brain is like a graphics processor," says CEO Rony Abovitz in Wired's video. "We basically tried to clone what that signal is, we made a digital version of that, and we talk to the GPU of the brain."

I am open to interpretations.

5. What the hell is Magic Leap?

Here is the one single shot of the Magic Leap... thing... in Wired's video report:

magic leap chip

We are told that it is a "photonics chip," and no one will quiiiite explain what that means. "Even the people building this technology have a hard time explaining what it is," says the narrator in Wired's video. "It's a three-dimensional wafer-light component that has very small structures in it and they manage the flow of photons that ultimately create a digital light field signal," says Abovitz. That's... hell, that's actually information! If Magic Leap is working on some kind of light field tech, that maybe means they are pushing down the same path as Lytro, which recently discontinued all of its light field still cameras and pivoted towards VR.

Of course, Lytro has already announced a VR light field camera, the Lytro Immerge. What do Magic Leap engineers have to say about their fancy new chip when asked to describe it in the video?

"It's like dreaming with your eyes open," says Sam Miller, director of systems engineering. "It just... it feels so real," adds Savannah Niles, interaction prototyper.

Okay then.