Last week the Chief Scientist at Oculus, Michael Abrash, laid out his vision for the future of VR. In his presentation he lays out a number of key technologies that are required to be able to fulfil this dream and gave a speculative time line of 5 years to accomplish many of the things he laid out. Encouragingly, most everything he said is something we know Magic Leap is working on from their patent applications, video releases and job posting. Seeing another company working in a similar space layout a roadmap that aligns so closely to what we presume Magic Leap is building gives credence to Magic Leaps ideas and ambitions. Let's look at some of these technologies.
Optics And Displays
Abrash explains the need to improve the optical performance of the headset by leaps and bounds. Features such as field of view, pixel density and variable focus are the core elements of these improvements. All of these features figure prominently in patents released by Magic Leap and are supposed to be core improvements of the Magic Leap product over the competition. It is clear that variable focus is the main foundation of Magic Leap and, while nothing is certain, the resolution and field of view of the Magic Leap device are reported to be far superior to what we have seen before in similar form factors.
One of the key differences here is the angle in which these goals are approached by both companies. Oculus is clearly gaming focused and their products are primarily built as a means towards that end. They are clearly shifting focus to a broader range of applications but the DNA of the company lives with gaming in mind. As with much of the company, the core focus of Magic Leap is hard to pin down but everything we have seen points to a fundamental broader ambition than just gaming. The company is built on ground level research in to optics and display technology and it is the closest thing to their core competence that we can point to today.
Graphics and Eye Tracking
As Abrash points out, eye tracking and foveated rendering is the key to improving graphics in head mounted displays. We have seen in many Magic Leap patents that eye tracking is vital to their product. Unfortunately, Abrash is not optimistic about the technology calling it "the greatest single risk factor for my predictions" and "tracking at the level required for foveated rendering is not a solved problem at all". This might be a harsh dose of reality for Magic Leap hopefuls. Personally, I had the impression that this was a solved problem or at least that the challenges were trackable. It looks like it will be another in a long set of challenges Magic Leap will have to overcome. However, in this case, they might have some help.
There are rumours out there that Magic Leap is working with Eyefluence. They have shown off impressive eye tracking in a form factor similar to what Magic Leap is aiming for. If this is good enough for Foveated rendering remains to be seen.
I honestly cannot work up much excitement for the audio aspects of these products and from the sounds of it neither can Abrash. That isn't to say it should be ignored but the problems involved are not as complex as in some other areas. Companies will get this right and the experience will improve. I think these improvements will be more incremental then revolutionary.
Abrash sees the future of interaction that relies heavily on handheld controller devices. This lines up with Magic Leaps reference to totems and tracking technologies such as that found in the razor hydra controller. Hand tracking is pointed out as an area of intense research but the problems involved are nontrivial. Abrash makes the bold claim that we will be using handheld devices for a long time to come based on the technical challenges with hand tracking. I think this is a reasonable guess but I hope we can eventually do away with these sorts of external controllers. Unfortunately, Abrash is likely correct that we will be stuck with them for some time.
Abrash ambitions for VR are smaller than Magic Leaps. That is not a bad thing. There is a good chance that having reasonable ambitions is smarter than reaching for the moon and crash landing. With that in mind, the ergonomics discussed differ from that of Magic Leap. Reducing weight and prescription correction are pointed at as major improvements that can be made to the Oculus product but most importantly, he claims, is the need for wireless headsets to allow for freedom of movement within the home. He clearly is not thinking of shrinking devices to glasses size and he is not thinking of removing the "tether" (Wired or wireless) to the PC. That said, Oculus is building a stand alone device but Abrash did not appear to be excited about that potentially. His ambition for the VR future is one for the living room not the sidewalk. While Magic Leaps first product will likely have the same ambition, the long term goal is to build something that can be used anywhere in the world. Magic Leap will likely have a wire for some time but this wire will behave more like a headphone cable than a wall plug. We already know people are happy to wire a device to something on your head from the long history we have with headphones. I like where Oculus is going with removing wires from a VR headset but this technology is not as vital to the Magic Leap product.
Oculus and Magic Leap are approaching the problem of mixed reality from opposite sides. Oculus wants to bring the world in to VR while Magic leap wants to bring VR to the world. The practical difference here is see through lenses which brings VR to the world versus closed imagery which brings the world into VR. He tried to coin the term "Augmented VR" but had to describe that term using the already established verbiage of Mixed Reality which made it feel awkward. I think awkward sums up the idea of bringing the world into VR. This approach will always give people a sense of disconnect with the real world and the content they are consuming. That said, we don't know which approach will work best but the problems that will need to be solved are similar. Understanding the world via computer vision is vital to both approaches. Further, as Abrash points out, building realistic "virtual humans" will be an important use case regardless of how mixed reality will work.
Personally, I believe Oculus is barking up the wrong tree here. Rony Abovitz seems to agree calling the likes of Oculus a "Really Bad Idea". See through lenses are yet to be proven but if they are feasible the advantages over full VR are vast. From lowering required rendering and world mapping to approachability, see through lenses are simply better. It remains to be seen if they can be built practically but I highly doubt people will want to walk around the world completely closed off even in their living room when an alternative that allows for external vision exists. Why rely on display to reproduce what is directly in front of you?
Competition is a good thing
While I don't personally buy into everything Oculus and Abrash is saying here, much of it overlaps with what we can gather Magic Leaps vision to be. Having another company working towards similar goals validates much of what Magic Leap is trying to do. This sort of competition can only be good for pushing the technology forward and I welcome the ambition Oculus is driving towards. Hopefully both companies can succeed in their own way and push each other to do great things. I look forward to Oculus succeeding and wish them the best in the dreams they have laid out.