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Inside Magic Leap's mystery $542 million augmented reality system

Stealth startups are by definition secretive about their work, but it’s difficult to keep secrets when you have to file patents. And so it came to be that nine months after its registration, a very special patent application from Magic Leap has reached its mandatory disclosure date to reveal just what half a billion dollars in funding from Google buys you in the way of cutting-edge augmented reality technology.

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Detailed within the 180-odd-pages of the mammoth request is a sleek visor that not only looks but also performs like something from the first season of Star Trek thanks to a pioneering design that resolves several of the biggest logistical challenges of augmented reality and looks good doing it. Meet what is very likely the future of immersive digital experiences:

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The first detail you may notice is that the visor lacks the bulky overhang projector found on existing models like Microsoft’s HoloLens, which is why the frame only runs up to the eyebrows instead of the forehead. That compact form factor is owed to the fact the imaging componentry is in the lens itself, which is where it starts to become apparent why Google is so excited about the technology.

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Light is transmitted into the wearer’s eyes at 60 frames per second through a sophisticated array of adjustable reflectors strategically positioned at different angles to provide an artificially wide  field of view. The mirrors are made of an electroactive material called lithium niobate commonly used in fiber optic networks that can change its brightness to allow for realistic coloration.

That takes shadow and lighting effects off the checklist, bringing us to the next item, the ability to place those graphics in three dimensional space. The visor achieves this with a high-speed mechanical adjuster that can reposition the mirrors to curve the light projected into your eye in a way that the filing claims creates a much more life-like illusion of distance than many alternatives.

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To let you comfortably move your attention between objects scattered at different distances, the light from the reflectors first passes through a so-called “expansion pupil” before entering your retina that magnifies the display to give more leeway for your eyes. That’s also where on-board software applies motion blur when appropriate to complete the realistic look of the augmented view.

You’ll be able to interact with the environment in a multitude of different ways thanks to cameras, microphones, accelerometers and a wide range of other sensors set to be attached to the visor in a yet unspecified combination. That input will be streamed to a local controller small enough to fit in your pocket or inside a helmet for processing, and in the case of online services, transmission.

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