It’s rare that we see a technology come full circle like virtual reality has. Back in the 90s there was a surge of interest in it with the large, clunky Virtuality machines being found in arcades and pizza joints the world over. Then it fell by the wayside, the expensive machines and the death of the arcades cementing them as a 90s fad. However the last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in VR with numerous startups and big brands hoping to bring the technology to the consumer. For the most part they’re all basically the same however there’s one that’s getting some attention and when you see the demo below you’ll see why.
Taken at face value the above demo doesn’t really look like anything different from what current VR systems are capable of however there is one key difference: no reference cards or QR codes anywhere to be seen. Most VR works off some form of visual cue so that it can determine things like distance and position however Magic Leap’s system appears to have no such limitation. What’s interesting about this is that they’ve repurposed another technology in order to gather the required information. In the past I would’ve guessed a scanning IR laser or something similar but it’s actually a light-field sensor.
Light-field sensors differ from traditional camera sensors by being able to capture directional information about the light in addition to the brightness and colour. For the consumer grade cameras we’ve seen based on this technology it meant that pictures could be refocused after the image was taken and even given a subtle 3D effect. For Magic Leap however it appears that they’re using a light field sensor to map out the environment they’re in, providing them a 3D picture of what it’s looking at. Then, with that information, they can superimpose a 3D model and have it realistically interact with the world (like the robot disappearing behind the table leg and the solar system reflecting off the table).
Whilst Magic Leap’s plans might be a little more sky high than an entertainment device (it appears they want to be a successful version of Google Glass) that’s most certainly going to be where their primary market will be. Whilst we’ve welcomed smartphones into almost every aspect of our lives it seems that an always on, wearable device like this is still irksome enough that widespread adoption isn’t likely to happen. Still though even in that “niche” there’s a lot of potential for technology like this and I’m sure Magic Leap will have no trouble finding hordes of willing beta testers.