The ephemerality of virtual and augmented reality matches the ubiquity of the technology at CES 2023.
Honestly, it feels a bit like the mid-1990s, when every tech company had an internet strategy. Almost everyone these days has a way to superimpose images in the real world or immerse you in a fantasy world.
The driving force behind this is hardware, and CES 2023 is packed with it. There’s a lot on the floor — so many AR glasses companies aren’t afraid to jump into the risky breach that once swallowed Google Glass.
But the real leaders are Meta, Magic Leap and HTC. While the once-secret and now newly-opened Magic Leap encouraged everyone through a series of corporate scenarios in the metaverse space’s showroom, Meta and Vive were offering an invite-only demo of their latest device in a nearby hotel ballroom.
I started with a visit to Magic Leap, where I met corporate CTO Julie Larson Green, a retired Microsoft Windows legend who was helping guide Magic Leap’s transformation from an inscrutable, promising wunderkind to a practical tool for industry and factories. And purposeful AR headsets, disaster response, and more.
As we talked about Magic Leap’s early promises in a packed booth, Green told me, “It’s still early days for the technology, and the consumer scenarios aren’t as clear.”
Enterprise is another matter. Industries, factories, even medical institutions, “they’re used to wearing things on their faces.”
Green encouraged me to wear the newest headset, the Magic Leap 2, which is 50 percent lighter and smaller than the original headset. It also has a powerful new custom AMD SoC.
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Unlike the new HTC Vive XR Elite and Meta Quest Pro, the Magic Leap 2 maintains a svelte profile by putting the battery and processor in a separate puck that hangs from a belt. This has the effect of making the headband lightweight and very comfortable to wear. This also means you will have a cable running from the puck to your head, I could feel the puck in my hip.
As promised, the Magic Leap 2 headset is comfortable to wear. I tried a scene where I was standing in a replica of the Hoover Dam and we were juggling our emergency breaks in response to the explosion. The graphics were good, and the -70-degree field of view meant the slightly cartoony dam seemed to be right around me. Using the controllers, I placed police cars and police officers around the virtual landscape. All the while, I can still see my real world.
Larson said Magic Leap is working with NVIDIA on its “Omniverse” concept, but buzzwords aside, the partnership could help bring ray-tracing support to headsets.
While the original Magic Leap was often discussed in a quiet, awe-filled tone, and only a select few saw the demos in person, this version of the company and its new leadership is all about practicality. From my experience, I think they’re grabbing the useful part, and even at $3,299, it might have a chance in the enterprise.
Where Magic Leap trades off its wizard mantle for a suit, HTC is at the forefront of delivering immersive and augmented experiences for everyone.
It’s been a while since I’ve worn a Vive VR headset. The original device I tried was VR-only and required beacons placed around the room to know where you were; the HTC Vive XR Elite is completely self-contained. It’s also been redesigned to be lighter and support AR and VR.
HTC set up six experiences for me to try, but first I had to get used to the new headgear, which now looks more like goggles attached to a padded headband. You screw it onto your head with a big knob on the back. As with the Magic Leap headset, I had to take off my glasses to use it. The HTC Vive XR Elite has small dials around the lenses that let you adjust the focus, and you can slide the eyepieces out or in to match your own interpupillary distance. In the display, you’ll see a green grid visual to help you position your shots correctly.
None of this is difficult or takes more than a moment. To further support the headset, there is a thin rubber band on top of your head. I found the fit to be very comfortable.
These demos do an excellent job of highlighting the specs and features of the HTC Vive XR Elite.
I use the included dual controllers and both hands to interact with the game. In an event called Maestro where I conduct an orchestra, I hold a remote in one hand, which I use to hold, tap, and wave a virtual baton. My other hand is free and I use it to point to the various parts of the orchestra in the queue. I was surprised to find that the Vive XR Elite recognized the movements of all five fingers on my free hand. I’m sure the four cameras and 3D depth sensor play a role here.
I played a game called Hubris, and the most notable thing about the game was that the system could intuitively read my swimming, grabbing, and climbing moves.
In AR, I played Yuki, a game where aliens emerge from holes in the wall. I did my best to shoot them all down with one hand, because the other hand in the game was inexplicably useless. The mixed reality effects are quite compelling.
I also use Gesture AR to paint in three dimensions, much like Tilt Brush.
My favorite is kayaking. For the experience, they sat me in a chair, handed me a real kayak paddle with trackers attached near each yellow paddle, and let me paddle. Again, the effects and motion capture made me feel like I could kayak in the real world.
Part of the reason everything looks so good is the HTC Vive XR Elite’s single-eye 2K LCD screen. It also gets points for having an excellent pass-through camera, which helps make AR experiences even more engaging.
After two hours, the battery life was surprisingly good, but I’m even more impressed that the battery is hot-swappable. When you pull it, the device stays on because there is a small 10-minute backup battery in the system.
When the system goes on sale in February for $1,099, it’ll beat its closest competitor, the Meta Quest Pro, by a few hundred dollars, but then the system has a lovely charging dock and remote that’s no longer needed LED ring around.
Look, I’m not ready to say the Metaverse is a thing, but VR and AR are making substantial leaps every year, if not every six months. Hardware keeps getting lighter and more powerful, and software keeps delivering compelling, immersive experiences.
Come to think of it, we haven’t even seen Apple’s secret yet.
See all of TechRadar’s CES 2023 coverage. We bring you all the big tech news and launches, from 8K TVs and foldable displays to new phones, laptops and smart home devices.