Logically, I know there isn’t a hulking four-armed, twisty-horned blue monster clomping in circles in front of me, but it sure as hell looks like it.
I’m sitting behind a workbench in a white-walled room in Dania Beach, Florida, in the office of a secretive startup called Magic Leap. I’m staring wide-eyed through a pair of lenses attached to what looks like metal scaffolding that towers over my head and contains a bunch of electronics and lenses. It’s an early prototype of the company’s so-called cinematic-reality technology, which makes it possible for me to believe that the muscular beast with the gruff expression and two sets of swinging arms is actually in the room with me, hovering about seven feet in front of my face.
He’s not just visible at a set distance. I’m holding a video-game controller that’s connected to the demo station, and at the press of a button I can make the monster smaller or larger, move him right or left, bring him closer, or push him farther away.
Of course, I bring him as near as possible; I want to see how real he looks up close. Now he’s about 30 inches from my eyeballs and, though I’ve made him pocket-sized, looks about as authentic as a monster could—he seems to have rough skin, muscular limbs, and deep-set beady eyes. I extend my hand to give him a base to walk on, and I swear I feel a tingling in my palm in expectation of his little feet pressing into it. When, a split second later, my brain remembers that this is just an impressively convincing 3-D image displayed in the real space in front of me, all I can do is grin.
A video by the musician St. Vincent floats on a virtual screen in a break area in Magic Leap’s headquarters.
Virtual- and augmented-reality technologies used in movies, smartphone apps, and gadgets tend to underdeliver on overhyped promises with images that look crappy. Typically that’s because stereoscopic 3-D, the most commonly used method, is essentially tricking your eyes instead of working with the way you normally see things. It produces a sense of depth by showing each eye a separate image of the same object at a different angle. But since that forces you to look simultaneously at a flat screen in the distance and images that appear to be moving in front of you, it can make you dizzy and lead to headaches and nausea.