Magic Leap has been shrouded in mystery since its inception seven years ago.
The company has spent almost a decade working on technology that superimposes computer-generated images over the real world in your field of vision. It has raised more than $2.3 billion from powerhouses such as Alphabet's Google, Alibaba, Saudi Arabia and J.P. Morgan. Google's CEO Sundar Pichai sits on the board. The company and its founder have been the subject of glowing coverage from publications like Wired and Forbes. And all of this — the money and the press — came before Magic Leap had ever showed its product to the general public.
Now the product is here. It's called the Magic Leap One Creator's Edition, and I had a chance to see if it lived up to the hype.
It costs $2,295. That's a lot, but it's not being sold to consumers just yet. Instead, Magic Leap will sell it to people who the company hopes will build more apps and games for the device.
Until now, only partners, celebrities and other VIPs had seen Magic Leap's technology. CNBC was invited to be among the first to see the final product.
Here's what I learned.
Magic Leap, if you're unfamiliar, is trying to build a business based on what's often called "augmented reality" or "mixed reality," the computing concept that overlays the digital world on top of the real world using a special headset.
Magic Leap isn't alone.
Google tried it with Google Glass. Microsoft is doing it with its $3,000 HoloLens developer kit. And patents and reports suggest Apple is working on its own take on an AR headset. Instead of using the terms "mixed reality" or "augmented reality," Magic Leap has adopted a new term called "spatial computing."
Journalists and other folks following the start-up have been skeptical about Magic Leap because it has never showed its product in a public setting, and only a handful of journalists have been invited to see it and write about it. Until I went down and saw the offices, I thought the technology could just be vaporware, something that would never launch.
But it does exist and it's finally available to buy. The first edition is targeted at developers who want to make apps for the platform, as well as "creators" like cinematographers who want to learn how to shoot video or create other content for Magic Leap.
I tried the Magic Leap One Creator's Edition for myself a few weeks ago.
Here's what it's like: Think of all the software you typically use — like email and a video player — floating in the real world in front of you. Since you can see really far through the headset, that software can pretty much exist anywhere within your eyesight. You could have a digital chat with a 3-D avatar of another user right in your living room, or go sit in a football stadium and drop a life-sized T. rex out on the field. There are much more practical uses, too, which I'll talk about in a bit.
The whole product consists of three main components. There's the Lightwear headset, a pair of computerized goggles that drop over your eyes. The Lightwear is connected to the Lightpack, a puck-shaped computer about the size of a portable CD player, which clips to your pocket. The Lightpack houses a chip from Nvidia and provides power to the headset. Then there's a remote that you hold in one hand that allows you to control the experience with a digital pointer that you can see through the glasses.
There's nothing else. You aren't tethered to another computer. You can walk around freely (though I felt a bit weird with it on my head since it's like trying to walk around with swimming goggles on). The company says users should get about three hours of battery life.
The headset is comfortable to wear, but it's also bulky. It's certainly not as simple as a pair of regular glasses. The back of the headset stretches open and then comfortably closes around the side of your head. Two sizes will be available in case folks have even larger heads. Also, if you have prescription glasses, Magic Leap is teaming up with a third party to provide prescription lenses.
It's hard to explain what it's like using Magic Leap, a problem the company has admitted.
In a beta version of an NBA app, I was able to put a video clip of LeBron James on a wall in the room and then see a 3-D rendering on the floor of LeBron's scoring play in slow motion.
The video of the basketball game was good enough that, if it were live, I'd have no issue watching the full game wearing the headset. The 3-D rendering on the floor didn't look real, but more like renderings you'd see in a modern game console.
The text on it was sharp enough to understand and read. The experience didn't hurt my eyes or give me a headache in the brief time I spent with it, either. I liked that it gave a new perspective to the video clip I'd watched: It threw the actual game up on the wall alongside the kind of information a basketball fan would want, including 3-D renderings and stats. Today, you might turn to your phone for that information. With Magic Leap, you wouldn't have to.
In another demo built for the band Sigur Ros, I felt like I was exploring the bottom of the sea floor. Neon, slightly transparent waves of grass and creatures sprung up from the floor around me. Each one I touched created a different sound. Sometimes, a sci-fi looking fish would suddenly appear from the sea grass and swim out across the room.
There are some limitations, however.
The Magic Leap One doesn't work if there's too much or too little light in the surrounding environment, but it should be fine in most indoor settings. There's also a field-of-vision issue. The Magic Leap One is sort of like looking through a window within your field of view. It doesn't lay the scene on top of everything within your vision, which means it can be hard to see objects that are really close to you or too big for the headset's field of view. Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz told me that future versions will start to fix this problem, but that it's difficult to cover the human eye's entire field of vision.
I knew the experiences weren't real, but it was unlike anything I've experienced before. None of the demos fooled me into thinking these images were really in front of me, but there was something calming about sharp, clearly rendered jellyfish swimming around me. And I loved the idea of being able to place a digital TV screen anywhere I wanted.
The "magic" component of the Magic Leap One is the "photonics chip," which is manufactured in a factory that I toured below Magic Leap's offices. In an interview, Abovitz told me the company can already build millions of the components that are required for the Magic Leap to work.
He said that the technology is different from other augmented reality devices because it projects light directly into the user's eye. He also said the brain is the "graphics processing" unit in Magic Leap and that the headset can make us believe what we're seeing is actually in front of us using lightfields and audio cues.
This was a little hard to understand, and I'm still not sure how it mapped to what I saw. Magic Leap sent me a brief whitepaper to try to explain. Here's a snippet:
A Dynamic Digital Lightfield is a binocular display that can project digital objects into the world such that light enters the eye as if it were reflected from a real object. Our lightfield is biomimetic (mimics our biology/physiology). Magic Leap One creates a seamless experience where digital and analog lightfields combine into a single scene. For example, with Magic Leap One, you can render digital flowers in a physical vase so they can appear fresh every day.
When I took the goggles off, I could see a small rectangular area superimposed on each lens. It seems that Magic Leap is displaying the images within these rectangular areas, and the light from those images was traveling into my eyes when I put the headset on. It's not clear how this is technically different from looking at a computer monitor or phone screen, both of which generate light that travels into the viewer's eyes.
But whatever Magic Leap has done, the experience with the goggles on was like a computer-generated 3-D world with real depth. For instance, a fish can appear to swim from behind you, up past you, and into the distance. That wouldn't be nearly as realistic on a regular screen.
Abovitz told me that the light can only be interpreted by a human — not a camera — so part of his problem in launching his product is that he can't film the experience. Abovitz's first prototype, which he worked on from 2011 to 2014 inside his garage, was a big bench that he called "the beast."
"When we were raising capital, I had to fly everyone to my crappy garage," Abovitz said. "Google didn't believe me, so they came in and saw it."
The processing for rendering the graphics is done by an Nvdia Tegra X1 chip included in the Lightpack that clips to your pocket. The Lightwear headset includes cameras that can scan the room around you, which tells the computer how big the room is and where virtual objects can be placed. Lightwear also includes eye-tracking technology, so it knows where you're looking.
Microsoft HoloLens is the closest to this sort of experience, since it also allows you to interact with computer-generated images that appear with the world around you. But so far, Microsoft is targeting business users. Abovitz sees future Magic Leap products as devices for everyone to wear all the time, including students, business users and regular consumers at home in their living rooms.
Abovitz imagines lots of experiences for Magic Leap. A consumer might be shopping for a car and, with Magic Leap, could see that car right in their driveway and swap out the colors in real time.
Or imagine browsing for a pair of shoes online and seeing what the shoes look like in 3-D from your desk.
Magic Leap's technology enables those experiences, but it still needs developers to create them.
A group inside the company called Imagination Factory (or "IF" for short), can help businesses solve problems, too. Abovitz said people around the world might be worried about artificial intelligence replacing their jobs, but that Magic Leap can help keep those jobs intact.
"That's the most important theme we are bringing in," he said. "When you have a human working with AI, they always beat the AI. That's super powerful."
He cited his previous start-up, Mako, which made robotic arms to help doctors perform surgery. "That was my combo at Mako — robotics and a surgeon. We can make people into superheroes. They have heightened sensing, intelligence and can see and do things better. Whether that's an athlete or a business person."
Abovitz also said that intelligent assistants will play a big role in Magic Leap's future. I didn't get to test one, but Abovitz says he's working with a team in Los Angeles that's developing high-definition people that will appear to Magic Leap users and assist with tasks. Think Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, but instead of speaking to your phone, you'd be speaking to a realistic-looking human through Magic Leap. Or you might be speaking to an avatar of someone real.
"You might need a doctor who can come to you," Abovitz said. "AI that appears in front of you can give you eye contact and empathy."
Finally, there's a whole world of entertainment that Abovitz imagines can take advantage of spatial computing. Since digital objects can look 3-D, you might be able to sit as if you're courtside at a basketball game, or right in front of a band you like. Or imagine a late-night show but instead of watching it on your TV, you're watching it as if the host is sitting in your living room.
Abovitz calls this "volumetric cinematography." He has an entire team at Magic Leap dedicated to building these experiences while working with potential partners in TV and movies.
The technology still needs to change on the other end, however. Instead of filming for the TV, producers and movie studios will need to think about how to film for Magic Leap. That will be a tough sell for a company that still doesn't have a customer base.
Yet, after using it, I'm pretty convinced this is where computing is going. We won't need smartphones or TVs on the wall, and one day those may seem archaic. Instead, computing will be done through something on our heads that augments our vision while also allowing us to see the real world. Magic Leap may not be the company that brings this experience to you, as it's competing against some deep-pocketed giants with well-known brands. But it's definitely offering a glimpse of the future.
The Magic Leap One is impressive, and it's unlike any computer I've used before. I see a real future in being able to interact with digital screens inside the real world around us, but Magic Leap is going to need to convince everyone else of that, too. It also needs developers and creators to help build unique experiences, which is the entire purpose of the Magic Leap One.
I imagine we're years away from the Magic Leap that's ready for the rest of us. One where I don't need my computer or phone at all, where there's no limit on the field of view and where every TV channel and movie and game I want to play is all in that world, sort of like a mixed-reality version of the Oasis from "Ready Player One."