The ephemerality of virtual and augmented reality was matched by the ubiquity of the technologies at CES 2023.
Honestly, it felt a bit like the mid-1990s, when every tech company had an internet strategy. Now almost everyone has a way to superimpose images on the real world or immerse yourself in fantasy images.
The driving force behind this is hardware, and CES 2023 was packed with it. There was a lot of that on the floor: plenty of AR glass companies, unafraid to jump into the risky gap that once engulfed Google Glass.
But the real leaders are Meta, Magic Leap and HTC. While the once-secret, now-newly-opened Magic Leap was on the show floor in the metaverse space encouraging everyone through a series of entrepreneurial scenarios, Meta and Vive were offering invite-only demos of their latest team at ballrooms across nearby hotels.
I started with a visit to Magic Leap where I met the company’s CTO, Julie Larson Green, a once-retired Microsoft Windows legend who is helping steer Magic Leap’s transition from being an inscrutable, over-promising wunderkind. to a practical and specific augmented reality viewer for industry and factories. , disaster response and more.
As we spoke inside the packed booth about the initial promise of Magic Leap, Green told me, “The technology was too early and the consumer scenarios weren’t as clear.”
However, Enterprise is a different story. Industry, factories and even the medical operating room “are used to wearing things on their faces.”
Green encouraged me to get the latest headset, the Magic Leap 2, which is 50% lighter and smaller than the original. It also has a powerful new custom AMD SoC.
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Unlike the new HTC Vive XR Elite and Meta Quest Pro, Magic Leap 2 retains its slender figure by placing the battery and processor on a separate drive that you can wear on your belt. This has the effect of making the helmet lightweight and very comfortable to wear. It also means you’ll have a wire running from the drive to your head, and I could feel the drive on my hip.
As promised, the Magic Leap 2 headphones were comfortable to wear. I tried a scenario where I was standing on a replica of the Hoover Dam, and we were playing our emergency rest to an explosion. The graphics were good, and the -70 degree field of view meant that the slightly cartoonish prey seemed to be all around me. Using the controller, I placed police cars and officers all over the virtual landscape. Meanwhile, I could still see my real world.
Larson said Magic Leap is working with NVIDIA on their “Omniverse” idea, but buzzwords aside, the partnership has helped bring ray tracing support to headsets.
While the original Magic Leap was often discussed in low, wonder-filled voices and only a select few had ever seen the demos in person, this version of the company and its new leadership is all about utility. Based on my experience, I think they are hitting the nail on the head with the useful part and even at $3299 I might have a shot at the company.
Where Magic Leap has shed its magician clothes for a suit, HTC is at the forefront of immersive and augmented experiences for everyone.
It had been a while since I had used a Vive VR headset. The original device I tried was VR-only and required beacons placed around a room to learn its position; the HTC Vive XR Elite is completely autonomous. It has also been redesigned to be lighter and support AR and VR.
HTC lined up half a dozen experiences for me to try, but first I had to get used to the new headset, which now looks more like goggles attached to a padded head ring. You squeeze it on your head with a big goatee on the back. As with the Magic Leap headphones, I had to remove my glasses to use them. On the HTC Vive XR Elite, there are little dials around the lenses that let you adjust the focus, and you can slide the eyepieces farther apart or closer to match your own pupillary distance. On the screen you will see a green grid that will help you position the lenses correctly.
None of this was difficult or took more than a moment. For added headset compatibility, there’s a thin elastic band that sits over the top of your head. I found the fit extremely comfortable.
The demos did an excellent job of highlighting the HTC Vive XR Elite’s specs and capabilities.
I used both the included dual controllers and my hands to interact with the games. During something called Maestro where he was conducting an orchestra, one hand held a remote control which he used to grab, play and wave a virtual baton. My other hand was free and I used it to point, in the queue, at various sections of the orchestra. I was surprised to see that the Vive XR Elite recognized the movement of all five fingers of my free hand. I’m sure all four cameras and the 3D depth sensor play a role here.
I played a game called Hubris that was most notable for the intuitive way the system read my swimming, grappling, and climbing movements.
In the AR realm, I played Yuki, a game where aliens emerge from holes in the walls. I did my best to take them all down with one hand because the other in the game was inexplicably useless. The mixed reality effect was quite convincing.
I also drew in 3D with Gesture AR, which was very similar to Tilt Brush.
My favorite was kayaking. For this experience, they made me sit in a chair, handed me a real kayak paddle equipped with trackers near each yellow paddle, and then let me paddle. Again, the effect and motion capture made me think I could kayak in the real world.
Part of the reason everything looks so good is the HTC Vive XR Elite’s 2K-per-eye LCD screens. It also gets points for having a great walk-through camera that helped make the AR experiences more engaging.
At two hours, battery life is surprisingly good, but I was more impressed that the battery is hot-swappable. When you pull it out, the device stays on because there is a small 10-minute backup battery attached to the system.
When the system ships in February at $1,099, it’ll beat out its closest rival Meta Quest Pro by a few hundred bucks, but that system has a beautiful charging dock and remotes that no longer need the LED ring around them.
Look, I’m not ready to say Metaverse is a thing just yet, but VR and AR are making substantial leaps every year, if not every six months. Hardware is getting lighter and more powerful, and software keeps pace with ever more compelling and immersive experiences.
And to think we haven’t even seen what Apple has up its sleeve.
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