Magic Leap 1 augmented reality headset: A cheat sheet

Magic Leap 1 is one of the most hyped AR headsets. Find out how it compares to Microsoft's HoloLens 2, how to develop apps for the headset, and more.

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Magic Leap 1

Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

Augmented reality (AR) may still be in its infancy, but it's quickly gaining traction as one of the biggest new technologies on the market. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other large tech companies are developing software and hardware with the goal of making AR products that capture interest from enterprise users and consumers.

One of the most hyped AR headsets is Magic Leap 1, which was first released to the public in August 2018. Magic Leap, which produces Magic Leap 1, is a small startup competing with some of the largest tech companies; despite that, it has made a huge impact in the AR world.

So, should you invest in an AR headset from a startup when similar products are available from tech giants (e.g., Microsoft's HoloLens 2)? To help answer that question, here's what you need to know about Magic Leap 1. We'll update this article when there is new information about the AR headset.

SEE: Magic Leap 1 augmented reality headset: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic Premium)

What is Magic Leap 1?

Magic Leap 1 is an augmented reality headset that looks almost identical to similar products. It has a transparent front that allows its wearer to see the world around them, onboard projectors for projecting AR images to the wearer, sensors for determining where the user is in space, and onboard speakers. 

A side-by-side visual comparison of similar products puts the Magic Leap 1 firmly in the middle ground of AR headsets: It's significantly smaller than HoloLens, but way bulkier than simpler products like the Vuzix.

SEE: The business guide to AR and VR: Everything you need to know (ZDNet)

Magic Leap 1 stands out in how it displays images. Magic Leap calls its display the "photonic lightfield chip," which makes it sound like it uses a technology called a light field display. Light field displays are headset-free 3D images that can focus light in three dimensions in order to create freestanding virtual images.

What Magic Leap 1 contains isn't an actual light field display, and in reality, it isn't unique technology: It's a typical waveguide display that bends light onto different layers of a display to create a depth effect. Magic Leap has more layers in its waveguide than competitive products--it has six distinct waveguides (two for red, two blue, and two for green). 

Magic Leap 1 claims its headset displays more depth than other AR products. TechRepublic sister site CNET said as much in its hands-on review of the Magic Leap 1, despite having mixed feelings about it.

Unlike other AR hardware, the Magic Leap 1 isn't just a headset. It gets around the bulk and weight of other products by putting all its computing power into a puck-shaped computer that is small enough to clip onto a belt or a pocket. It also has a handheld controller that provides six degrees of freedom (pitch, yaw, roll, left/right, forward/back, up/down).

Tech specs for Magic Leap 1

Headset:

  • Six-layer waveguide "photonic lightfield chip" display

  • Eye tracking infrared sensors

  • IR dot projector for measuring room

  • 40x30 degree field of vision

  • Spatial audio 

  • Voice input

Computer:

  • NVIDIA Parker SOC

  • 2 Denver 2.0 64-bit cores + 4 ARM Cortex A57 64-bit cores

  • NVIDIA Pascal GPU, 256 CUDA cores

  • 8 GB RAM

  • 128 GB SSD storage

  • Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11ac/b/g/n, USB-C

  • Up to three hours of continuous-use battery life

  • Runs on proprietary Lumin OS

Controller: 

  • 6 degrees of freedom

  • LRA haptic feedback

  • Touchpad

  • 8-bit resolution trigger button

  • Digital bumper button

  • Digital home button

Additional resources

SEE: Quick glossary: Augmented Reality (TechRepublic Premium)

How is Magic Leap 1 different from Microsoft HoloLens 2?

Among enterprise-focused AR headsets, the market is essentially restricted to two products: Magic Leap 1 and Microsoft HoloLens 2. Unsurprisingly, the two products are comparable in many ways.

For starters, Magic Leap 1 and HoloLens 2 have transparent lenses that let the wearer see both the virtual objects the headset projects and the world around them. Neither are virtual reality (VR) headsets: They're meant to overlay virtual objects onto the real world. 

Both AR headsets project images onto multiple layers of waveguides that split light and make images appear three dimensional, but the Magic Leap 1 does it in twice the layers. The reason, Magic Leap said is so that it can make images appear in focus or fuzzy depending on where the wearer is focusing.

SEE: Microsoft HoloLens 2: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Aside from the basic design and function, there are a lot of differences between HoloLens 2 and Magic Leap 1. 

First, there's the fundamental choice of design to put the computer in the headset, a la HoloLens, vs. putting all that hardware in a clip-on computer, as with Magic Leap 1. Because its computer isn't integrated, Magic Leap 1 is a bit lighter on the head (it's less than one pound compared to the HoloLens 2's 1.4lbs), which could make a difference for users concerned about weight.

HoloLens relies solely on voice and gesture commands--unlike Magic Leap 1, it doesn't have a remote for performing manual input. This potentially gives Magic Leap 1 a wider array of applications. Games built for Magic Leap 1, for example, make extensive use of the controller.

One of the greatest limitations of Magic Leap 1 is its snug fit, which makes wearing eyeglasses underneath it impossible. Prescription lens inserts are available, but even those have limits: Prescriptions are only available in the range of -7.5 to 0, so if your eyes require a different prescription than that, you're out of luck, or stuck wearing contact lenses. The inserts cost $249, which is a steep investment when you've already shelled out $2,295 for Magic Leap 1. 

Magic Leap 1 does come in cheaper than the HoloLens 2, which costs $3,500 for the device without any accessories.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

In regards to pricing, one other important contrast between the two most widely available AR headsets: They ultimately have slightly different use cases.

Looking at the HoloLens apps store, it's obviously for businesses and the education sector. Yes, there are some games in there, but the bulk of the apps are designed to teach and assist professionals. In addition, HoloLens has a lot more apps than Magic Leap 1. 

Check out the Magic Leap page for its apps (called experiences) and there's a huge contrast: Games abound, with high-profile franchises like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Angry Birds all offering titles. There are apps from CNN, the NBA, and DirecTV. Lowes and Wayfair have apps for trying out furniture and redesign options. The list of high-profile and big names goes on. 

Additional resources

How can developers build apps for Magic Leap 1?

Magic Leap 1, like HoloLens, is a developer-centered device. Developers who want to build apps (experiences) for Magic Leap 1 need to not only have access to a Magic Leap headset but also know a bit about its software.

Magic Leap 1 runs on its own operating system called Lumin OS, which is built from open-source tools like Linux and the Android Open Source Project; developers will need to become familiar with the different layers of this OS and its components. Lumin OS won't be a mystery to seasoned developers, though, because it's made up almost entirely of these familiar components:

  • A Linux-based kernel with custom drivers for Magic Leap 1 makes up the Lumin OS core;

  • OS services are largely standard, along with a set of Perception Services that manage Magic Leap 1's sensors and other unique hardware;

  • The platform APIs used by Lumin OS are made up of standard POSIX APIs and additional ones especially for Magic Leap 1;

  • The Lumin runtime provides a basic set of foundational APIs and a UI toolkit;

  • Lumin OS uses popular 3D runtimes like Unreal 4 and Unity; and

  • Lumin OS's interface is the last layer, and it's custom built for Magic Leap 1.

Along with becoming familiar with Magic Leap's in-house OS, developers will need to register as Magic Leap Creators at the Magic Leap Developer Portal. On that developer portal, you can find links to tutorials and guides, API references, a download link to the LuminSDK (account required), and tools for getting experiences published. 

Developers should be familiar with the programming language requirements for at least one of the Lumin OS developer platforms: C#, C++, C, JavaScript, Blueprints, CSS, and HTML are the languages now supported by the various Lumin OS platforms. 

Developers don't specifically need a Magic Leap 1 to start working on apps, but it's going to be a lot easier to code, test, and troubleshoot if you have a headset. If purchasing a Magic Leap 1 is out of your or your organization's price range, try to get access to one before publishing an app.

Additional resources  

Should my company use Magic Leap 1?

With its shift from entertainment to enterprise, Magic Leap has changed its focus almost entirely. While previously it may have been a go-to platform for companies making games and other in-home entertainment items, its new purpose is to appeal to businesses in four areas: Copresence, 3D visualization, real-time support, and location-based experiences.

Copresence: Magic Leap wants to make teleconferencing and other virtual forms of meeting more personal with shared sessions, instant file sharing, and "realistic copresence," which it shows on its website as being almost like something out of Star Wars.

3D visualization: Like HoloLens, 3D visualization of virtual objects in real space is one of the Magic Leap 1's new focuses. Things like engines, circuits, and even the human body could be interacted with in a shared space for the purposes of teaching and training.

Real-time support: This area of focus is all about getting an expert on the line who can see what the wearer is seeing and help walk them through their task both with video and 3D markups of the object being worked on.

Location-based experiences: Tours, trade shows, office orientations, and other things where location-based information or virtual objects could be displayed is the final role that Magic Leap wants to fill. In its documentation, Magic Leap describes "Catch[ing] a virtual home run [or] tour[ing] Versailles Palace with King Louis as your ghostly guide" as two examples of how that tech could be used.

If these uses seem familiar, it's because they're largely the same applications that Microsoft sees for HoloLens

Additional resources

How can I buy a Magic Leap 1 headset?

Magic Leap 1 has been available since August 2018, but upon launch, it was only restricted to a few US cities where its concierge delivery service operated. Since then, access has been expanded, but only in the US--international shipping of the Magic Leap 1 isn't available yet. 

Anyone interested in buying Magic Leap 1 can do so directly from Magic Leap's website. It's priced starting at $2,295 and can be financed for $96 a month.

Individual purchasers will be walked through a process that will take measurements to determine the headset size, additional accessories required (e.g., prescription inserts or a shoulder strap), shipping, and the like. The process is fairly simple, but to get the right fit, it's important to have a computer with a camera on it when you order: The Magic Leap website uses a webcam to measure the purchaser's face to determine size. 

SEE: Special feature: Executive's guide to the business value of VR and AR (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Enterprise customers interested in ordering Magic Leap 1 can head over to the Magic Leap enterprise portal, but you won't get any information without a Magic Leap ID--it's required to even sign in to the enterprise portal. Even after signing in, you won't be presented with any practical information, like enterprise pricing or additional support--the website makes you fill out all your business information and then apply for purchase approval. 

Anyone interested in a hands-on trial of Magic Leap 1 who are close enough to a participating AT&T store can try and buy a headset in store. Other than that, it's online ordering only. 

Additional resources