The elusiveness of virtual and augmented reality was matched by the omnipresence of technology at CES 2023.
To be honest, it felt a bit like the mid-90s when every tech company had an internet strategy. Now almost everyone has a way to overlay images in the real world or immerse you in the fantastic ones.
The driving force behind this is hardware, and CES 2023 was filled with it. There was a lot of it on the floor – so many AR glass companies that weren’t afraid to jump into the risky breach that once claimed Google Glass.
But the real leaders are Meta, Magic Leap and HTC. While the once mysterious and now newly opened Magic Leap was on the show floor in the Metaverse space, inviting everyone to wade through a series of corporate scenarios, the Meta and Vive offered invite-only demonstrations of their latest gear in nearby hotel ballrooms.
I started with a visit to Magic Leap where I met CTO of Julie Larson Green, a once-retired Microsoft Windows legend who is helping steer Magic Leap’s transition from impenetrable and all-over-promising prodigy to a practical and purpose-driven AR headset for industry, factories. disaster response and more.
As we chatted in a crowded booth about Magic Leap’s early promises, Green told me, “The technology was too early and the consumer scenarios weren’t that clear.”
Enterprise, however, is a different story. Industry, factories and even medical theaters: “They are used to wearing things on their faces.”
Green encouraged me to wear the latest Magic Leap 2 headset, which is 50% lighter and smaller than the original. 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 its slim design by housing the battery and processor in a separate disc that can be worn on a belt. Thanks to this, the headgear is light and quite comfortable to wear. It also means you’ll have a cable running from the puck to your head, and I felt the puck on my hip.
As promised, the Magic Leap 2 headset was comfortable to wear. I tried out a scenario where I was standing in a replica of the Hoover Dam and we played out our emergency rest before the blast. The graphics were good and the -70 degree field of view meant that the somewhat cartoonish dam seemed to be all around me. Using the controller, I deployed police cars and officers throughout the virtual landscape. All this time I still saw my real world.
Larson said that Magic Leap is working with NVIDIA on the “Omniverse” idea, but buzzwords aside, the partnership helped bring ray tracing support to the headset.
While the original Magic Leap was often discussed in hushed, admiring tones, and only a select few had seen the demos in person, this version of the company and its new management relies solely on usability. Based on my experience, I think they nail a useful part, and even for $3299, it might have a chance in the enterprise.
Where Magic Leap has ditched the wizard’s suit in favor of a suit, HTC is on the brink of an immersive and extended experience for everyone.
It’s been a while since I wore the Vive VR goggles. The original device I tried was for virtual reality only and needed beacons placed in the room to know your position; The HTC Vive XR Elite is fully self-contained. It has also been redesigned to be lighter and support both AR and VR.
HTC lined up half a dozen 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 shock-absorbing head ring. You fasten it on your head with a large knob at the back. As with the Magic Leap headset, I had to take my glasses off to use it. There are small knobs around the HTC Vive XR Elite lenses that allow you to adjust the focus, and the glasses can be moved apart or zoomed in to suit your own interpupillary spacing. You will see a green grid on the display to help you position the lenses correctly.
None of it was difficult or took more than a minute. For extra support of the headset, there is a thin elastic band on top of the head. I find the fit extremely comfortable.
The demos did a great job highlighting the specs and capabilities of the HTC Vive XR Elite.
I used both the included dual controllers and my hands to interact with the games. During something called Maestro where I was conducting an orchestra, I held the remote with one hand, which I used to hold, tap, and wave a virtual baton. My other hand was free and I used it to point to the various sections of the orchestra in line. I was surprised to see that the Vive XR Elite recognized the movement of all five fingers of my free hand. I’m sure the four cameras and the 3D depth sensor play a role here.
I played a game called Hubris, which was most notable for how intuitively the system reads my swimming, grabbing, and climbing movements.
In the AR world, I played Yuki, a game where aliens emerge from holes in the walls. I did my best to shoot them all down with one hand because the other in the game was inexplicably useless. The mixed reality effect was quite convincing.
I also drew in 3D with Gesture AR, which was very similar to the Tilt Brush.
My favorite was the Kayak. In this experience, they had me sit in a chair, handed me a real kayak paddle fitted with trackers near each yellow paddle, and then let me paddle. Again, the effect and motion capture made me think I could kayak in the real world.
One of the reasons everything looks so good is the 2K LCD screens per eye on the HTC Vive XR Elite. It also gets points for having an excellent pass-through camera that helped make the AR experience more compelling.
At two hours, the battery life is surprisingly good, but I was more impressed that the battery is hot swappable. When you pull it, the device will stay on because there is a small 10-minute backup battery in the system.
When the system ships in February for $1,099, it will beat its nearest rival Meta Quest Pro by a few hundred dollars, but then this system has a beautiful charging dock and remotes that no longer need an LED ring around them.
Look, I’m still not ready to say the Metaverse is a thing, but VR and AR are making significant leaps every year, if not every six months. Hardware is getting lighter and more powerful, and software is keeping pace with ever more compelling and immersive experiences.
And to think we haven’t even seen what Apple has in store.
Check out all of TechRadar’s coverage of CES 2023. We bring you the latest news and tech launches, from 8K TVs and foldable displays to new phones, laptops and smart home gadgets.