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Magic Leap wants developers to mix the virtual with reality

Magic Leap's 'mixed reality' breakthrough is a welcome relief to the boredom of hyping Uber and AirBnB as technology companies just for using the internet and cloud computing.

Magic Leap softare development kit SDK
Credit: Magic Leap

Ultra-secret mixed-reality company Magic Leap hinted at the company's plans to change how people perceive a world where virtual elements merge with reality at the MIT Technology Review's recent EmTech Digital conference. It is hard to keep a secret when in less than two years the company has raised $592 million from first-tier venture capital firms, including Google and Andreessen Horowitz. Right now, Magic Leap has raised its public profile to attract the attention of developers who can create reality-transforming software experiences.   

During the 45 minutes they spent on stage with Tech Review editor Jason Pontin, Magic Leap's CEO and founder Roni Abovitz, Chief Creative Officer Graeme Devine, and Chief Futurist Neal Stephenson discussed more about the company's plans in an entertaining and sometimes zany, but carefully practiced, performance. 

Devine, a famed game developer, said Magic Leap is building a software development kit (SDK). Though all the Magic Leap representatives at the show maintained that the technology would be used in many types of applications, Devine thinks game and entertainment software developers will especially grasp the concept and build great software. Magic Leap's SDK will support widely adopted game engines Unity and Unreal, which will help onboard game developers quickly. Devine recommended developers sign up on its website to receive information about the SDK, which he promised would come soon.

Magic Leap, a cousin to virtual reality and augmented reality, defined its own segment as "mixed reality." It claims to use a different approach than virtual reality like Oculus Rift's stereoscopic video. Stereoscopic video presents slightly different video images to each eye, tricking the brain to interpret three-dimensional relationships between people and objects in the user's field of view. Magic Leap's Abovitz says their technology merges three-dimension virtual entities, such as a computer-generated creature, with the human world and allows them to interact within it as if they are aware of real-world surroundings. Abovitz claims that by modifying the light field perceived by the human eye, the subject can see a hologram imposed on reality that is neurologically true. For the first time in public, Abovitz explained that Magic Leap does this with a proprietary photonic light field chip using 3D nanostructures.

Abovitz also claims Magic Leap isn't an augmented reality platform because it does not project on top of the real world. It merges the computer generated world with the real world in such a way that the two are indistinguishable. Readers interested in more detail should read Rachel Metz's report at the Technology Review on her demonstration of Magic Leap.

The company has moved beyond the R&D stage, where it proved the technology is now in the development stage, according to Abovitz. This explains much about Magic Leap's mega-funding. Setting up a pilot production facility to build its photonic nano-structure chips is capital-intensive.

The haptic systems, virtual reality for touch, that give humans feedback during their interaction with intelligent systems have yet to advance to the point where users will experience something more than a hyper-real telepresence. Here is where the Magic Leap team's openness at the conference ended; how humans will interact with this merged reality wasn't a topic they were prepared to discuss. However, Abovitz did hint at his own haptic domain expertise, which could lead the company to merge feeling into this modified reality, when he said that earlier in his career he built robotic brain surgery systems with haptic feedback that differentiated soft tissue and bone.

Though the companies in this general category of 3D perception, including Oculus Rift, Microsoft's HoloLens, and Magic Leap, are altering technologies object to being categorized together, this industry is heating up and is receiving mainstream attention.  

In a tech industry that has devolved into boredom, calling Uber and AirBnB technology companies simply because they use the internet and cloud computing to disrupt existing industries, Magic Leap is a refreshingly bold venture seeking to create an exciting technological breakthrough with its photonic nano-structure chips and social disruption with its applications.

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