A reminder that when the first cell phone launched, it was a brick with no coverage and a terrible battery. The first PC required actual computer programmers. Early web pages were nothing better than an electronic document. It was not where they started that showed their genius, it was where they lead us.
Virtual reality kicked off with the buzz around the Oculus, a Kickstarter project bought by Facebook before it shipped.
There was Google Glass launched with loads of fanfare with a skydiver filming his arrival at the launch to a cheering crowd of tech faithful and press.
Microsoft’s Hololens was rolled out to less fanfare. It promised an impressive augmented reality display although in all three cases, the hardware needed to create the illusion was like the old PC or a bulky mobile phone.
The Hype Cycle has not been kind to many, but they are slowly getting better. As mobile phones and their sensors got smaller, cameras better and more processing power fitting onto less silicon, the possibility of a functioning device that also looks good increases. An important consideration for using a device in virtual reality is that it is practical to use in this reality.
Amid the clamour to build the next big thing in alternative realities was a small company, not based in Silicon Valley, but Florida. It did not make crazy claims (not often anyway). It was, for the most part, quiet, the only thing that kept coming up was the flow of cash, lots of it from very large companies.
Google, Alibaba, Axel Springer and even Saudi Arabia have invested. They have a collaboration with Lucas Films and WetaWorks. They are valued at $6 billion but have yet to sell a single product.
The question is what are they ultimately looking to build - an industry-changing product or a product changing an industry?
Let me explain the difference.
The mobile phone was a product that transformed the telecommunications industry. Landlines declined, the mobile ruled.
Computer Generated Graphics (CGI) allowed for a new type of movie that has transformed the industry. The most profitable blockbusters rely on CGI effects, and while many are old comic book stories, the movie industry was unable to convert those stories into credible movies until the advent of CGI.
GoPro almost managed to achieve this. It began as a great compact camera perfect for capturing action scenes. It then looked to build a community of movie makers when competitors started competing with their cameras. Despite the millions of sport and action clips loaded to video sharing sites, GoPro was not able to convert the interest of the community into a business model they could turn into profits, at least not yet. They succeeded in changing how we capture our daily lives, but not creating a business while doing it.
Magic Leap, despite being only a well-funded promise at the moment, might be able to benefit from the tech advances in VR and the growing appetite by non-digital industries to embrace new digital products.
Here is how it works.
Virtual Reality replaces everything you see with a projection that moves as you do. Looking left and right brings the parts of the image that was outside your field of view into view. Most work from a fixed point but can be rotated, panned and tilted. Newer versions also allow for movement from your starting point.
Augmented reality overlays a 3D image in your field of view. It is opaque enough to appear solid and allows you inspect the object from multiple angles. Initially, they remained connected to a spot in the real world but can now move, and you can move around them.
Magic Leap describes its use of VR as mixed reality looking to create both static items like screens in your field of view as well as moving objects. The display appears to use a sophisticated light field method. Not new, but not as easy a tech to apply as a reflected image in a screen in front of you which is how Google Glass and Microsoft’s Hololens principally works.
Their most recent application announcement is to enhance NBA viewing. Sport supplemented with so much additional screen overlays now that watching a game live might almost be disappointing. The idea is that you don’t need to clutter your TV screen with extra stats, you can cover your room with it instead. Additional displays with stats, or replays or close-ups. Depending on the processing power and speed to convert the real world images into the virtual and you could do anything.
If you have a colleague that sits in front of a bank of displays seemingly able to look at all of them, that experience may be coming for all of us, just using virtual screens. The added advantage is that because the view is only seen by you, unless shared, you could allow many workers that would otherwise need privacy to sit in more public places. Likewise working in open spaces would be private. Security workers would have access to additional security information while looking at someone.
Magic Leap has a deal with comic publisher MadeFire. If movies could do so much to increase comic revenues, and there are a lot more comics than movies, a mixed reality version may see new and old comics getting a fresh lease on life. The headset also uses sound in the same way as images. It would follow your head movements. Audio spacial awareness will make the holographic pictures appear even more real.
Actors have done a great job acting against green screens, headsets like this may allow them to work in the scenes they will eventually appear in making the final movie look even better. The collaboration with LucasFilms and WetaWorks suggests this is a potential use.
The value is not only to the actors but the cameras too. Having the CGI captured with the live-action cuts down on the editing and may even one day allow actors to do their performance anywhere while appearing to be on location and acting with fellow actors who could be anywhere too.
LucasFilms is part of Disney, and a future theme park experience may be created around you and changed at will using far fewer props and turn even a basic roller coaster into any crazy experience you like.
The man at the centre of this is Rony Abovitz, a biochemical engineer with love of art. His previous venture was a company that built robotics to assist surgeons. It was sold for over a billion dollars and allowed Abovitz to pursue this project. Founded in 2010 the company may not have released a product yet but does have four office locations and a reported staff complement of over 1000.
Many other companies are working in the field although few have the unicorn status of Magic Leap. It also has its fair share of critics who have more questions than praise for its secretive development plans. After eight years though, they have committed to releasing their first edition this year. If they fail to do so, they will be in trouble. The hype around it could prove as damaging. Had it released the product with no fanfare it may have been a hit, the same product with excessive expectations and it could flop. Just look at the Segway for how damaging hype can be.
The Google Glass, Microsoft Hololens, Facebook Oculus and a host of other mobile VR products in development may seem like a fad, but I think once the hardware issues get addressed, and the costs come down, the attraction for this will be significant.
The high road is that it replaces our phones and devices, making speech and vision our only requirement for full immersion.
A middle of the road option would see it used for premium entertainment and professional settings like construction, manufacturing, security and even art.
The niche version would be in high-end helmet displays for pilots and astronauts.
Its time may not have come yet, but the most dystopian version might see it as a controller for people. Despite all the advances in robotics, the human body for performance and cost is still the best for many applications. Using a smart display controller could have gig economy workers hired to do a variety of manual labour tasks directed by an AI helmet. Our bodies will prove the superior design, not our brains.