Leaping into the future with AR
Augmented reality may become a huge market for consumers, but for now, the technology lends itself best to the enterprise space, where higher costs make sense for specific applications.
That is the view expressed by Magic Leap CEO Peggy Johnson when she spoke at this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, about her recent move to the company.
The former Microsoft executive vice president of business development joined AR headset maker Magic Leap in August 2020 in the midst of the pandemic and found a company that had a launched a functional and exciting AR headset aimed initially at consumers. Even though the Magic Leap One was cutting edge, it was struggling for mass adoption.
Johnson explains that the product came “perhaps a bit too early” for consumers – it was too large and wasn’t backed with a substantial ecosystem or enough applications to justify the cost (currently around $2,300).
The pivot, she added, came as she arrived at the company, with a realisation that the headset could solve numerous problems and challenges for certain enterprise sectors.
“To me that just made so much more sense. And then I narrowed it down to just healthcare, manufacturing and defence and public sector because those verticals are already used to wearing things on their eyes, and they’re comfortable with that and they could embrace the value of augmented reality.”
As Johnson explained, it is a lot easier to convince a doctor training for a complex surgery to wear a headset in the operating room than to get people to put them on when they go out with friends or just to use at home.
She likens the challenge for Magic Leap and other AR headset makers to that of the mobile phone manufacturers in the 90s. Initially, the devices were primarily owned by businesses and those who worked for them, too bulky, inconvenient and expensive for most consumers.
“Those things didn’t matter because you were using the phone to solve problems for your business,” she explained. “If you needed to do that quickly, you could pull over and make a call from your car, rather than finding a parking spot near a phone booth. So there was a return on that investment.
“With AR, there is a return on investment in those industries we’ve identified today.”
As mobile phones grew in popularity, they got cheaper, lighter and less expensive, and that evolution offers hope for AR and VR, she adds.
Though the Magic Leap One didn’t achieve critical mass (although the company keeps a tight lid on sales figures), the manufacturer is well-funded, with investments believed to have surpassed $2.6 billion from backers including Google and Alibaba. That means it is steaming straight into a follow up device, Magic Leap 2.
Johnson announced plans for the new device in October when the company revealed it had raised another $500 million in a funding round.
“This investment is an important step in advancing Magic Leap’s mission to transform the way we work,” said Johnson, in a statement. “Since joining Magic Leap in 2020, my focus has been on accelerating the company’s shift to the enterprise market, strengthening our technological foundation, and building a robust business across sectors ranging from healthcare and manufacturing to defence and the public sector. With ongoing support from our existing investors, Magic Leap will have greater financial flexibility and the resources needed to continue our growth trajectory as we expand on our industry-leading AR technology.”
Magic Leap 2 will be smaller, lighter, and faster than its predecessor, she explained, offering an “all day, every day” kind of experience for users.
“You have to be able to leave that thing on your head right through your eight hours or however long you’re working. So we made that move.
Another key consideration was the field of view, and where you can place content on an AR headset. “That’s the optical challenge – you want it to be as big as possible. So we were roughly the same as [Microsoft] HoloLens, which is is second generation – that’s the other product in our category. Now, with Magic Leap 2, we are going to double that field of view. You’re going to be able to put digital content in a much larger space.”
What does this mean for the user? Optically, the AR field of view will cover around 70 degrees, which is double what Magic Leap One offered. This will help enterprise users who may have to look around more, such as at a factory floor, but still need to perceive the content produced on the headset.
Another key challenge for AR headsets is bulk, much of which is caused by the need for larger batteries to power them.
Magic Leap’s headset are tethered, although there is an optional battery pack which can be attached to a belt or placed in a pocket in order to remove both weight and the heat generated from a battery away from users’ heads.
Key to making AR into a success, whether that be for consumers or for enterprises, is offering solid use cases for the technology. This means building out an ecosystem that offers applications to meet business needs.
The latest $500 million funding round will not only guarantee the development and launch of the second generation headset, but it will also allow Magic Leap to “build the ecosystem around it”. And Magic Leap has turned to the developer community to partner with it on developing killer apps.
“We’ve got an open SDK that we’re starting to distribute to developers, and the ecosystem grows as fast as we can bring them on,” she explained.” It’s easy to just take their applications, and then using the features that Magic Leap provides the ability to create a 3D visualisation of a of a brain or a factory machine they can use.”
One example she offered was a recent partnership with Cisco to integrate its WebEx video conferencing platform into Magic Leap.
“They’re taking video conferencing to a new level with 3D meetings,” added Johnson. “So they have a very high quality engagement and Magic Leap is one of the devices that they’re using to turn a typical 2D, sitting in front of our laptop, kind of a meeting into a 3D meeting where you’re sitting back and you can virtually see the people you’re speaking with. But maybe we’re getting on planes less because you don’t feel the need to actually fly several hours.”
She says Magic Leap’s role in these partnerships is to take advantage of features on an existing product in order to make the experience more realistic for the end user. This includes features such as special audio, which gives the impression of where people are in a room in relation to you.
It also allows for more collaboration. Say two people are working on a design together. On a typical meeting, they may share a screen, but through AR, they can annotate together, change the size or shape of the design, or adapt it on the fly in a way that is more challenging than through Zoom or Teams.
Another example of use cases she discussed is surgery. “The power of augmented reality is when we can interweave it into everything we do,” she said. With surgery, doctors will be able to take an augmented reality device like Magic Leap into the operating room with them. They might be carrying out knee surgery and the headset would enable them to lay a marker for where an incision might go.
Johnson added: “I think in a few years, we’ll look back and say remember when doctors didn’t use augmented reality to operate on you – you’re not going to want that old experience. You’re only going to want the new experience because it’s going to be so much more accurate and precise.”
One key challenge that surgeons using the headsets faced was the impact of highly lit rooms on the content. Surgeries are, understandably, well lit. This can dull the content, making it harder to see on Magic Leap One.
To combat this, the company developed a dimming function that actually dims the lightness of the room around the content if necessary, which would allow surgeons to only light the part of the body they are focussing on. In fact, according to Johnson, this technology is more VR than AR and the headset can go full VR if necessary.
Of course, widespread adoption will be stalled until headsets feel less intrusive. The “holy grail” of XR is a headset that is no more disruptive than wearing normal glasses or sunglasses. So how far out is this? Analysts often say it might take a decade. Johnson is more confident.
She said: “I’d say it’s probably a couple years out. I don’t think it’s the 10 years out that some of the companies that are starting to dabble in AR are saying it is. We’ve been doing this for 10 years and we’ve already solved a lot of the complex optics in the AR product that we have. So I think it’ll be more like a few years not 10.”
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