There’s a lot that can be said about the Magic Leap One.
It’s trying to do a ton—eye-tracking, hand-tracking, 6DoF controllers, real-time meshing and a number of other features that haven’t been seen in a mobile MR device before.
And although its OS and Apps don’t fully utilize the tech available to them, Magic Leap One is an ambitious, well-made, but imperfect MR devkit that doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but is still the most complete and affordable mixed-reality (MR) computer out there.
Part 1: The Hardware
If you’re not familiar, a mixed reality computer is a device that interacts with your senses and understands your physical space. It uses that information to allow you you to place digital objects in your world that feel real.
The Magic Leap One consists of 3 elements: a light-pack, a headset and a controller — all of these components are beautifully designed, with colorful lights coming from unexpected places.
The headset is lightweight, easy to put on and comfortable, and that allowed me to use it for hours on end without tiring up my neck. It usually sits well on your head if you don’t move it too quickly, but can fall out of place if you perform extreme actions such as running. I also felt some heat on my forehead after a few hours of use due to the placement of one of the processing units.
The controller is intuitive, comfortable to hold and works well in most cases, although I’ve noticed some considerable delay in the 6DoF tracking. Magic Leap says this is unusual, but I’m still waiting for a fix.
The light-pack carries the bulk of the processing power for the ML1, so it is the heaviest object of the bunch. It’s actually quite heavy when you hold it on your hand, but the weight disappears when you clip it in your pocket — this has some trade-offs, however: the pocket-centered design ignores the possibility that users may be wearing things like a dress or more elastic pants that wouldn’t provide a strong grip.
Adding a bit of complexity to the UX are wires that can tangle in the user’s clothes and limbs if they’re not careful. This makes trying out the Magic Leap One a little bit awkward as the user is set up for a potential accident. For example, while I was stress-testing the device the light-pack fell from my pocket at one point due to the type of pants I was wearing and the thick wires briefly choked me as they got stuck around my neck and almost brought the headset down.
Thankfully, Magic Leap sells an optional $30 strap that allows you to wear the light-pack over your shoulder. This option was universally preferred by me and my colleagues due to its friendly and context-agnostic nature, but it should have been a part of the original packet.
Update: While the strap is listed as a $30 item on the website, I was just told by Magic Leap that they’ve been making them free for all those who purchase it with their device. This was unclear at the time of my purchase and I ended up not getting one.
Magic Leap One’s display is great, but a bit less crisp and legible than 2016’s HoloLens. ML1 supports a higher field-of-view than the HoloLens, but it seems to have done it by sacrificing image resolution, wihch can make text cloudy. Its lenses are also considerably darker to compensate for lack of image brightness, which can sometimes remove you too much from the environment.
The display can showcase some occasional visual artifacts at times, the strangest one being an “oily” texture that appears when you’re looking at brightly-colored virtual objects. Artifacts are nothing new in the realm of Mixed Reality, but they will start showing up if you start looking.
Magic Leap has for a long time talked about the “multi-focal light-field” properties of its display, and chances are you won’t notice it in action. Apparently it’s one of those features that is working if you’re not noticing it, so it’s hard to make an assessment of how much of a difference it actually makes.
Issues aside, most components of the product come together well enough to make the ML1 a very capable platform for developers to build experiences for. The Magic Leap has catching up to do in some areas of the headset, but it was a joy to play with at first pass.
Part 2: Spatial Meshing & Tracking
Magic Leap One’s real-time meshing is solid, responsive and relatively fast, being comparable to the higher-end tracking solutions we see today.
While the meshing process isn’t perfect and can miss reflective surfaces, as well as black objects, this stands as a common issue in AR in general. Developers must pick the rooms they choose to exhibit this in carefully to guarantee an ideal experience.
The Magic Leap One also had a hard time recognizing rooms that were already previously scanned and constantly asked me to re-scan my environment every time I booted up the device. This would be easy to overlook, but it messes with one of the coolest things in MR: is digital object persistence (virtual objects you place in the real world staying where you placed them in between sessions). I hope this is something they improve in an update.
For the most part, the tracking of virtual objects feels solid with only the occasional jittering, which was never too noticeable in my experience with the device. All and all, tracking and real-time meshing of the Magic Leap One works well and lags only a bit behind the HoloLens in terms of accuracy.
But what about the diverse forms of input tracking?
Eye-tracking has worked pretty well in the small tests that I’ve done and is one of the things I’m most excited for. Eye-tracking offers so many exciting new possibilities for telling stories and creating interfaces (a topic I explored in a separate article) and I’m excited to see how people turn this into a key aspect of this device.
Hand-tracking is also here, but it can feel pretty limited if you’ve played with other superior forms of tracking like the Leap Motion. It’s more about tracking entire hand gestures than it is about tracking the placement of individual fingers — it actually supports these 8 pre-defined gestures.
The 6DoF controller works through magnetic tracking and it’s generally good, but as mentioned before, it has presented me with some positional tracking issues that I’m hoping will be resolved.
All things aside, the fact that the device has eye-tracking, hand-tracking and a 6DoF controller is impressive and it’s a solid enough toolbox for people to create natural interfaces with, specially when you add voice recognition on top of it all. Now we just have to see how developers will choose to use it and how these features will improve throughout the year.
Part 3: The Operating System
The Lumin OS is quite pretty, albeit safe in its design — Magic Leap has found some interesting ways to play with color, depth and movement, and it pays off. The UI is responsive and the sound design is particularly sublime, making everything a joy to utilize (really, all the sounds in this just make me really happy).
This being praised, the UI is not without issues and can be minimalist to a fault. Me and several others have sometimes found ourselves feeling lost, not knowing how to accomplish a task due to lack of information being displayed in its beautiful but vague floating “windows”.
In my first hours with the device I liked the user-interface, but as time went on I started noticing how the user experience doesn’t make full use of the hardware it’s running on.
As responsive as the user interface was, it all feels like it was designed after a 3DoF controller, even though you have something far more powerful in your hand. The interface never invites physicality into the mix — you can’t touch objects, buttons or menus with your hand, controller or head. It all feels like a missed opportunity.
I think this is for two reasons:
- They wanted the interactions in the OS to not make the low field-of-view too apparent.
- At the time the OS was designed, Magic Leap was not expecting to have a 6 DoF controller in their release hardware.
Other elements in the UI also seem to show that Lumin with was designed with a different hardware configuration in mind: hand-tracking is ignored throughout; eye-tracking never came to my aid to help me select objects or keyboard keys (it’s all done with the track-pad, which is often inaccurate); you place virtual objects by moving your head, not your controller, which feels clunky.
All of this makes Lumin OS serviceable and pretty, but lacking cohesion with the hardware it runs on — it’s like the teams working on the technology were separated from the teams working on the OS and they didn’t get to meet early enough to incorporate the cool tech ML1 possesses in its interface.
Part 4: The Launch Apps
Magic Leap One comes with a few applications that are interesting, but feel like sources of inspiration more than fully fledged products. However, there are two exceptions: Tónandi and Helio (which we’ll cover in just a bit).
Tónandi is an MR experience that transforms your environment into a number of musical alien landscapes. It’s by far the best showcase of best-practices and abstract storytelling potential and, disappointingly, also the only launch app that makes use of hand-tracking.
Another good example is Project Create, which turns your room into a creative toy-box. You can create forests on the floor, spawn characters that interact with one another on top of a table and design elaborate contraptions utilizing the many versatile tools that the experience provides.
It’s a nice and playful, but I wanted to see more. After hearing so much press about Invaders I was excited to boot it up — only to learn that it’ll be available later this fall.
There is a Social application that will allow you to have avatar calls with other users, but these calls are currently unsupported. This was slightly frustrating, mostly because the missing feature is not mentioned anywhere in the application — after an hour of trial and error, I had to ask a Magic Leap employee what was going on to find out that the feature won’t be ready for months.
Given the current state of the store, there’s not enough to keep you occupied for more than an hour as a consumer, which really positions this as a device designed for creating.
Like with the OS, the currently available apps do not use most of the input modalities of the device. And this leads to something interesting: Magic Leap’s developer community will likely outmatch Magic Leap creatively and become the real metric of what this device can do. This is the opposite of what happened with the HoloLens, whose launch apps were such a good showcase of the available features that the creator community never quite matched them.
Part 5: Helio and the MR Web
Examples show how navigating the web can be made much more interactive, informative and generally useful through thoughtful 3D elements as MR computers become the norm. See a piece of furniture you want to buy? Just drag it in your living room and you can see how it fits within your space. Want to inspect a location mentioned in a news article? Just get up and walk around it as you read.
According to Magic Leap CEO, Rony Abovitz, there’s no full WebVR support on Helio as of now, but integrations between VR & MR could soon be a possibility.
Part 6: The Field-Of-View
Magic Leap One has the best FoV of its class, although it’s still relatively small. But how noticeable is it?
Let me start by saying that I don’t think a large field-of-view is that important in this stage of MR — it’s an engineering problem that’s bound to be solved and it’s simply a matter of time. What I’m much more interested in is what the device is capable of doing in all other areas and how that could change how Mixed Reality experiences are built.
That being said, Magic Leap was smart in hiding its limitations. The dark parts of the headset cover a lot of your field of view, helping you focus on the center of the display. The darker lenses combined with the hardware-covered up field-of-view actually immerse you a bit like a VR headset would, which I found surprising — when using the headset I immediately became less aware of my surroundings and the people around me.
To further help hide the low field-of-view, many applications have their holograms fade nicely on the edges of the visor and it works very well. Objects were consistently going out of my view in Tónandi but I barely ever noticed them due to this trick and their semi-transparent visual style.
But not all apps implement this, and the FoV can become more noticeable in apps like Project Create, which allow you to paint with your controller outside the visible area of the display. Overall, the wider FoV is a welcome addition and it’s up to designers to create mechanics that leverage it while also hiding its limitations.
Conclusion — Should You Buy This?
If you’re a consumer, this product is probably a few years from being ready for you.
If you’re an enthusiast, you should give it a year so Magic Leap can have time to roll out all of their launch apps and developers can bring life to the store.
But if you’re an experienced creator who’s passionate about MR computing and want to take a part in it while its still being written — the Magic Leap One is the cheapest and best all-around mobile MR headset in the market.
It’s not perfect — the device still has a lot of room for improvement and it doesn’t beat old headsets on all accounts. But it tries much more than anyone else, giving developers the strongest set of tools available to re-imagine computing.
There’s still a lot of unknowns in regards to the future of MR and the role Magic Leap will play in it. It too asks that developers take a leap.
I really hope that they continue to improve on what they’ve built so this can go from being a good devkit to a landmark device. As it stands, the Magic Leap One is rich with technology, but still has flaws and unexplored potential.
I took a leap because I love MR and wanted to find out what that potential was — but it’s up to you to find out if you feel the same way.