I have covered a lot of material and even then only glossed at the surface of what I have learned about Magic Leap (ML). By combining the information available (patent applications, articles, and my sources), I have a fairly accurate picture of what Magic Leap is actually doing based on feedback I have received from multiple sources.
This blog has covered a lot of different topics and some conclusions have changed slightly as I discovered more information and with feedback from some of my sources. Additionally, many people just want “the answer.” So I thought it would be helpful to summarize some of the key results including some more up to date information.
What Magic Leap Is Not Doing In The Product
Between what I have learned and feedback from sources I can say conclusively that ML is not doing the following:
Light Fields – These would requires a ridiculously large and expensive display system for even moderate resolution.
Fiber Scan Displays – They have demonstrated low resolution versions of these and may have used them to convince investors that they had a way to break through the limitations of pixel size of Spatial Light Modulators (SLM) like LCOS, DLP, and OLEDs. Its not clear how much they improved the technology over what the University of Washington had done, but they have given up on these being competitive in resolution and cost with SLMs anytime soon. It appears to have been channeled into being a long term R&D effort and to keep the dream alive with investors.
Laser Beam Scanning (LBS) by Microvision or anyone else – I only put this on the list because of an incredibly ill-informed new release by Technavio stating “Magic Leap is yet to release its product, and the product is likely to adopt MicroVision’s VRD technology.” Based on this, I would give the entire report they are marketing zero credibility; I think they are basing their reports on reading fan-person blogs about Microvision.
OLED Microdisplays – They were using these in their demos and likely in the video they made, but OLED are incompatible optically with there use of a diffractive waveguide (= ML’s Photonic Chip).
Prototypes that Magic Leap Has Shown
FSD – Very low resolution/crude green only fiber scanned display. This is what Rachel Metz described (with my emphasis added) in her MIT Technology Review March/April 2015 article, “It includes a projector, built into a black wire, that’s smaller than a grain of rice and channels light toward a single see-through lens. Peering through the lens, I spy a crude green version of the same four-armed monster that earlier seemed to stomp around on my palm.“
TI DLP with a conventional combiner and a “variable focus element” (VFE). They use the DLP to generate a series of focus planes time sequentially and change the VFE between the sequential focus planes. Based on what I have heard, this is their most impressive demo visually and they have been using this for over a year, but the system is huge.
OLED with a conventional combiner (not a waveguide/”Photonics Chip”). This is likely the version they used to shoot their “Through Magic Leap Technology” videos that I analyzed in my Nov. 9th, 2016 blog post. In that article I though that Micro-OLED might be used in the final product, but I have revised this opinion. OLEDs output very wide bandwidth light that is incompatible with waveguides, so it would be incompatible with working with Photonics Chip ML makes such a big deal about.
What is curious is that none of these prototypes, with the possible exception of #1, the single color low resolution FSD, are using a “waveguide.” Waveguides are largely incompatible with OLEDs and having a variable focus element is also problematical. Also none of these are using LCOS, the most likely technology in the final product.
What Magic Leap Is Trying to Do In Their First “Product”
I’m going to piece together below what I believe based on the information available from both public information and some private conversations (but none of it is based on NDA’ed information as far as I am aware).
LCOS Microdisplay – All the evidence including Business Insider’s October 27, 2016 points to ML using LCOS. They need a technology that will work well with waveguides using narrow band (likely LED) light sources that they can make as bright as necessary and control the angle of the light illumination. LCOS is less expensive, more optically compact, and requires less power than DLP for near eye systems. All these reason are same as why Hololens is using LCOS. Note, I’m not 100% sure on them using LCOS, but it by far the most likely technology they will be using. They could also be using DLP but I would put that at less than a 10% chance. I’m now ruling out Micro-OLED because it would not work in a waveguide.
Two (2) sequential focus planes are supported – The LCOS microdisplay is likely only able to support about 120 full color frames per second which is only enough to support 2 sequential focus planes per 1/60th of a second of a moving image. Supporting more planes at a slower rate would result in serious image breakup when things move. The other big issue is the amount of processing required. Having even two focus planes greatly increase the computation that have to be done. To make it work correctly, they will need to track the person’s pupils and factor that into their processing and deal with things like occlusion. Also with the limited number of focus planes they will have to figure out how to “fake” or deal with a wider range of focus.
Variable Focus – What I don’t know is how they are supporting the change in focus between the sequential focus planes. They could be using some form of electrically alterable lens but it is problematical to have non-collimated light entering a waveguide. It would therefore seem more consistent for them to be using the technique shown in their patent application US 2016/0327789 that I discussed before.
Photonics Chip (= Diffractive Waveguide) – ML has made a big deal about their Photonic’s Chip, what everyone else would call a “waveguide.” The Photonics Chip likely works similar to the one Hololens uses (for more information on waveguides, see my Oct 27th, 2016 post). The reports are that Hololens has suffered low yields with their Waveguides and Magic Leaps will have more to do optically to support focus planes.
Overall, I think it it is very clear that what they will actually make is only a fraction of he vision they have portrayed to the press. They may have wanted to do 50 megapixel equivalent foveated displays, use FSD as their display device, have 6 focus planes, or even (from Fortune July 12, 2016) ““light-field” technology essentially mimics the brain’s visual-perception mechanisms to create objects and even people who look and behave just the way they would in the real world, and interact with that world seamlessly.” But then, they have to build something that actually works and that people can afford to buy. Reality then hits the fan