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Patents remind us that Magic Leap is powered by tiny projectors, not magic

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But we still don't know how it stacks up to HoloLens

Over the past few days, Wired has published some articles that give us the closest look yet at the ambitious, enigmatic augmented reality company called Magic Leap. They've left us with both a lot of fascinating possibilities and a lot of questions, because most of Magic Leap's technological explanations are couched in the language of either science fiction or, well, magic. As poetic as "[talking] to the GPU of the brain" and "dreaming with your eyes open" sounds, this is probably the clearest and most interesting description of Magic Leap's work in the piece:

All three major MR headsets 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.

In the wake of Wired's profile, we've also gotten a look at a whole lot of ideas for Magic Leap mixed reality optical tech, courtesy of the USPTO. The seven patent applications published today aren't exactly clear indicators of what Magic Leap is doing, but they help ground its work with more details. Among other titles, you've got "Modifying a focus of virtual images through a variable focus element," "Projecting images to a waveguide through microprojectors for augmented or virtual reality," and "Providing variable depth planes through arrays of reflectors."

Magic Leap Patent

Generally, these patents are covering methods of projecting light into a reflective waveguide — the semitransparent material mentioned by Wired — that directs it into the eyes at multiple angles. More specifically, they talk about methods for effecting the realistic illusion of depth that Wired describes, passing light through various lenses (or "stacked waveguides," seen above) to create what our eyes will interpret as different focal planes.

Magic Leap's "photonic lightfield chip" — the only piece of its headset that we've seen pictures of — is theoretically this sort of lens system. Basically, when we look at an apparently distant hologram, it could make us feel like we're actually seeing light reflecting off a faraway object, instead of faking perspective with a flat 3D display.

The difficult thing here is that without trying it, we can't say whether this is notably more effective than something like HoloLens' own waveguide projection system. Magic Leap's patents make a lot of comparisons, but they're often to totally different technology like Oculus Rift-style VR headsets, which use literal flat screens instead of projected light. The augmented reality systems that the filing sets up as Magic Leap's competition are relatively simple ones. One of them is a pair of glasses with cameras that feed into flat stereoscopic displays:

Magic Leap Patent

Others are displays that feed into one eye, a system that's good for simple heads-up displays but bad for realistic holograms:

Magic Leap Patent

There's also, somewhat amazingly, a picture that anyone who followed Google Glass a few years ago might recognize:

Magic Leap Patent

It's easy to explain why Magic Leap is probably better than all these, but that's not the question anyone's asking. And it's a question, obviously, Magic Leap probably doesn't want to tell the world in a patent filing. What this does suggest, though, is that Magic Leap is genuinely getting closer to distilling its huge promises into hard tech — and that the tech is a subtle but potentially important tweak to what we've already seen from other companies.