Magic Leap’s headset is real, but that may not be enough

Deep inside a nondescript building in Plantation, Florida, Magic Leap has built a gadget that is real, and cool, and can mix three-dimensional virtual images with reality better than any other augmented or mixed-reality headset—whatever you want to call it—that I’ve seen.

The big question now is: what will people do with this thing?

The company hopes developers and other creative types will start coming up with answers shortly. Because today Magic Leap will start selling its long-awaited first gadget, a pair of black, tinted, fly-eyed goggles called Magic Leap One.

It’s not for anyone. You’ll first have to register as a developer—the company hopes a community of developers will emerge to build apps for the headset, as they do for smartphones—and shell out $2,295 for it (for comparison, Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, also still aimed at developers, costs $3,000 or $5,000). You also have to be at least 18, and able to have it delivered to you in one of several US cities where it will be initially available, such as New York or Seattle. If none of these hurdles stops you, you’ll receive the headset, a wearable computer that connects to it, and a one-handed controller. A rechargeable battery gives the whole system enough juice to work for up to three hours at a time.

The ML One is the culmination of everything that CEO Rony Abovitz and the rest of his team have been working on since 2011. The company’s marketing, depicting things like a whale jumping out of a gym floor and a tiny elephant in a pair of cupped hands, envisioned a product so good at blending digital creations with the real world that it would kindle childlike wonder in users. The new headset represents a chance for Magic Leap to finally live up to the hype.

The Magic Leap One headset connects to a small wearable computer, and works with a handheld controller.

The news is that in many ways, it does. When I went to visit the company last month, I placed a headset over my face and saw sea turtles flying around the room in which I stood, leaving tiny trails of bubbles in their wake and moving when I poked them. I shot a ray gun at nasty alien robots as they jumped through a portal in a wall. Overall, the visuals were crisp and vivid, and in some cases I was able to see several digital images, positioned at various depths, at the same time.

It was way, way smaller and more portable than the early prototypes I saw back in late 2014 when I first visited the company. At that time, I looked through fixed lenses on a giant scaffolding-like device to see an impressively realistic blue monster. A cart-based (but still not portable) device let me view and poke at a tiny, steampunk-style flying robot. Even then, I was so impressed that MIT Technology Review included Magic Leap’s efforts—what it was then calling “cinematic reality”—in our 2015 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies.

That was one of the few views outsiders have gotten into the company up until now. It has raised more than $2.3 billion, and filed for hundreds of patents related to things like projecting digital images in the real world (dozens of them have been granted). Yet for most of that time Magic Leap has combined maddening secrecy with exaggerated marketing stunts, leading many developers and techie consumers to conclude that the company was little more than vaporware.

In 2015, for instance, it released a YouTube video titled “Just another day in the office” that showed robots dropping into an office from a portal in the ceiling. The original description on YouTube stated it was “a game” the company was “playing around the office right now.” In fact, the clip was the same as or similar to one I had seen a few months earlier and had been told was simply a game trailer. (On YouTube, at least, where 4 million people have watched it, it has since been renamed “Original Concept Video”). Demos shot through ML One that the company showed off during a recent Twitch livestream, like a tiny rock-throwing monster, looked lame, and were mocked mercilessly.

So when I was asked this summer to go back to Florida to try the ML One ahead of its release, I was prepared for secrecy, obfuscation, and pretty lame visuals. I got some of the first two, but I think ML One is likely the best AR headset out there right now.

An ML One headset at Magic Leap’s Florida headquarters.

Yet while Magic Leap has accomplished what many people said it would not, it still has a monumental task ahead: convince developers to make compelling content for a style of computing that is so new that many people don’t know it exists, much less what kinds of things it will be good for. Figuring that out is not going to be easy. And my sense is that the company itself doesn’t have a clue what the answer is.

Since the last episode of “Magic Leap”…

Abovitz is tired, but cheerful. He stayed up until 2 a.m. last night working, trying to put the finishing touches on the ML One, which at the time I see him is coming out in just a few weeks. He’s sitting in his office, a glass-walled room in the middle of Magic Leap’s maze-like office in Plantation, Florida, about 10 miles inland from Fort Lauderdale’s palm-tree-dappled beaches.

Behind him are shelves filled with toys—everything from ray guns to a Jimi Hendrix figure to Miyazaki-like Ikea night lights—and books with titles like Making Hard Decisions and Graphics for Engineers. In one corner of a shelf, inside a small, clear case, stand figurines of pink and green monsters and an astronaut, along with a box of mythical Thwaxo’s Space Fudge—a small monument to Abovitz’s inscrutable 2012 stage appearance at a TedX event in Sarasota, Florida (the monsters were dancing around a giant fudge box, and he walked onstage in an astronaut suit).

He wants to give me a recap of everything that has happened at Magic Leap since we last spoke in person. If life were a TV show, my late-2014 visit was the pilot season, he says, and the company is in season four right now. He runs me through a slide show, pointing out years of prototypes ranging from the big one I saw (nicknamed “the bench”) to smaller and smaller versions (one wearable demo from 2015 looks like a Bladerunner prop and goes over the head, from the nape to the forehead). He wants to make it crystal clear: years have been spent building prototypes and fine-tuning different parts and pieces just to get to the ML One.

Slideshow: Magic Leap AR headset prototypes include one nicknamed “Cheesehead” and another called “WD3” (the letters stand for “Wearable Demo”).

Slideshow: Magic Leap AR headset prototypes include one nicknamed “Cheesehead” and another called “WD3” (the letters stand for “Wearable Demo”).

Slideshow: Magic Leap AR headset prototypes include one nicknamed “Cheesehead” and another called “WD3” (the letters stand for “Wearable Demo”).

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