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A room could contain one real block but display three virtual blocks on a shelf—blocks A, B, and C. You see your hand grab block B, but the VR system will direct your hand to touch the only real block in the room. Stairs can be made to feel endless if they drop down as you walk upward. But in fact the real floor only sinks 6 inches.

You can easily imagine a room 60 by 60 feet packed with a minimal set of elemental shapes, ramps, and seats, all recycled and redirected for a variety of multihour adventures. Seeing, it turns out, is not believing. We use all our senses to gauge reality. Most of the high-end VR rigs on sale this year include dynamic binaural—that is, 3-D—audio.

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This is more than just stereo, which is fixed in space. To be persuasive, the apparent location of a sound needs to shift as you move your head. Deep presence includes the sensations of motion from your inner ear; if the two are out of sync with what you see, you get motion sickness.

Good VR also includes touch. Gloves are still not consumer-ready, so hardware makers are using simple controllers with a few easily operated buttons. When you wave them, their positions are tracked, so you can manipulate virtual objects. As primitive as these stick-hands are, they double the sense of being present.

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Touch, vision, and sound form the essential trinity of VR. Andy Gilmore. W hile Magic Leap has yet to achieve the immersion of the Void, it is still, by far, the most impressive on the visual front—the best at creating the illusion that virtual objects truly exist. The founder of Magic Leap, Rony Abovitz, is the perfect misfit to invent this superpower. As a kid growing up in South Florida, he was enthralled by science fiction and robots. He gravitated toward robots as a career and got a degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Miami.

While still a grad student, he started a company that built robots for surgery. They are stream-of-consciousness doodles featuring alien creatures, annotated by tiny inscriptions that include secret messages to girlfriends. They do not appear to come from the mind of an engineer. As it happens, though, good virtuality takes both fantasy and physics. Abovitz is heavyset, bespectacled, and usually smiling. He is warm and casual, at ease with himself. But he vibrates. He hums with ideas. One idea unleashes two more. He whips his large head around as he speaks, sweeping up more ideas.

As in his cartoons, a discussion can leap almost anywhere.

Mind Monsters: Invaders from Inner Space?

Most of his ideas seem to combine physics and biology. In his conversation and his work he exhibits a rare sensitivity to both the logic of machines and the soul of biology. Abovitz has a knack for all three realms, and his surgery robots sold well. In his company, Mako, went public.

Caption: Caption: Magic Leap's UX team, which creates the ways that users will interact with the mixed reality universe and experiences. Caption: Caption: Magic Leap uses a pair of robots named Click and Clack to test and calibrate its prototype hardware. Caption: Caption: A lobby area where Magic Leap staff often holds meetings, with some attending via telepresence bot. That success sparked a new idea.

Could you make a virtual knee good enough to help repair a real knee? Could you augment a knee operation with an overlay of a virtual knee? Abovitz began thinking about the technology that could match virtual worlds with complex real-life surgery. Abovitz has a deep love of science fiction, and he invented a whole world on another planet—flying whales, men in dragonfly gear, a young girl with a pet monkey-bat, and an invading army of robots. Flush with cash from his robotics company, he hired Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special-effects house co-owned by movie director Peter Jackson, to create a detailed realization of that world.

For Abovitz they designed his world, called Hour Blue, and filled in the details of flying whales and monkey-bats. It quickly mutated from graphic novel into virtual-reality precursor. Because what alien world would not be better experienced in immersive 3-D? Abovitz was already pioneering MR for doctors; this would be an extension of his ideas. The company Abovitz set up to develop this immersive world was Magic Leap. Its logo would be his totem animal, the leaping whale.

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The hardware to create the MR would have to be invented. By this time, , the Oculus Kickstarter campaign had launched, and other prototypes with similar phone-based technology were in the works. Here Abovitz deviated off the main path. Because of his work in biomedicine, he realized that VR is the most advanced technology in the world where humans are still an integral part of the hardware. To function properly, VR and MR must use biological circuits as well as silicon chips. The sense of presence you feel in these headsets is created not by the screen but by your neurology.

Tricks like redirected walking operate in our brain as much as in the Nvidia processor. Abovitz saw artificial reality as a symbiont technology, part machine, part flesh. Artificial reality exploits peculiarities in our senses. It effectively hacks the human brain in dozens of ways to create what can be called a chain of persuasion. In a movie, our brains perceive real motion in a sequence of absolutely still images.

In the same way, you can scan a blue whale from many angles and then render it as a 3-D volumetric image that can be displayed on a headset screen and viewed from any position. But if even one small thing is misaligned, that discrepancy can break the gut-level illusion of presence. Something as simple as having to. As virtual and mixed technology improves—and as companies start smelling profits—everyone from phone manufacturers to tech giants is getting into the game.

Availability VR MR.

Facebook Now. In , Facebook bought Oculus, the company that dreamed up the Rift headset and literally kick-started the VR revolution. Read more. HTC Now.

Sony October Google Now. Google created Cardboard, its cheap assemble-it-yourself viewer, to bring virtual reality to the masses via their smartphones. Samsung Now. The Gear VR straps a Galaxy smartphone new models only to your head to deliver games and apps—all powered by Oculus software. OSVR Dev kit available. An open source platform for VR and MR launched in and backed by a consortium of companies like Intel and gaming outfit Razer.

Fove Fall This startup proposes to use eye tracking to sharpen what you focus on and blur everything else, cutting down on processing power. Microsoft Dev kit available. Meta Dev kit, fall Apple Not Available. Following his hunch to exploit human biology, Abovitz set off to make an artificial-reality display in a more symbiont way. The phonelike screens used in the majority of head-mounted displays created a nagging problem: They were placed right next to your eyeballs.

If the device is generating the illusion of a blue whale feet away, your eyes should be focused feet away. Likewise, when you look at a virtual jellyfish floating 6 inches from your face, your eyes are not crossed as they would be in real life but staring straight ahead. No one is conscious of this optical mismatch, but over long use the subconscious misalignment may contribute to frequently reported discomfort and weaken the chain of persuasion.

It felt natural. Microsoft is now selling development versions of its mixed-reality visor called the HoloLens. The technology is unique so far in that the entire contraption—processor, optics, and battery—is contained in the visor; it is truly untethered. Meta, another startup, has released an MR device that began, like Oculus , with a Kickstarter campaign.

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The headset is tethered to a computer, and dev kits should hit the market this fall—likely well before Magic Leap. Abovitz realized that VR is the most advanced technology in the world where humans are still an integral part of the hardware.


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All three major MR headsets rely on images that are projected edgeways onto a semitransparent material—usually glass with a coating of nanoscale ridges. Magic Leap claims that its device is unique in the way it beams light into the eye, though the company declines to explain it further at this time.

However Magic Leap works, its advantage is that pixels disappear. But in truth, the quality of displays in all alternative-reality gear—VR and MR alike—is improving rapidly. Month by month the resolution of all visors increases, the frame rate jumps, the dynamic range deepens, and the color space widens.

Once this small display perfects realism, it becomes the one display to rule them all. If a near-eye screen offers sufficient resolution, brightness, breadth, and color richness, it can display any number of virtual screens, of any size, inside it. It looked as bright and crisp as my inch TV at home. I could fill my office with as many screens as I wanted, as big or small as I desired.