Geo Week News

June 19, 2015

The Future of 3D Might Be Further Away Than You Think

Magic Leap

Magic Leap and mirrorless LiDAR might not be coming anytime soon.

It’s easy to get excited about futuristic things that we see rolling out of research institutions. Almost every week we see some cool scanner or LiDAR device from a university, a startup, or DARPA, and often they usually promise to revolutionize the way you work or live. These new technologies may change a lot for you, but there are a few reasons why you may not be seeing them any time soon.

Futuristic technologies often take quite some time to filter down to the commercial space, because solving a problem with technological ingenuity is only the first step. Let’s say you found a way to provide the most precise positional accuracy for an indoor mobile-mapping rig. Great job! How are you going to produce it? Where will you manufacture it? 

An article in the MIT Technology Review argues that the distance between the hype over an exciting new solution and its actual production can be much wider than we realize. Take Magic Leap, for instance, which has been hyped breathlessly in many publications (full disclosure: including this one). Their technology is a wearable display meant to make virtual objects appear in your view of the real world, allowing your eyes to focus on them as if they were actually real. The few who have used it talk about it like it’s the most important development in years. It could mean a lot of wonderful things for our industry if it ever gets made. 

But it might not get made.

Magic Leap relies on a type of technology called silicon photonics, which miniaturizes optical technology by using silicon chips as an optical medium. The technology is complicated and powerful, and allows Magic Leap’s display perform crazy light-manipulation maneuvers to trick your eye into thinking virtual objects are real. It’s also horrifically hard to produce.

As the article explains, “Whether Magic Leap can create that product will depend on whether it can scale up a new chip-making process for silicon photonics—something that’s a big undertaking even for semiconductor giants.”

Intel, for instance, has been building silicon chips for years and announced within the past year that they would be mass-producing these chips. In February, however, they announced that manufacturing challenges with one of the components caused a delay. If Intel is having a rough time getting it done, what are the chances that Magic Leap will do it? 

As one expert in the article notes, when you’re building a whole system of fabrication facilities, the $600m that Magic Leap got in funding is “nothing.” The cost may end up in the range of multiple billions.

It’s worth noting that DARPA is working in the area of silicon photonics as well. A few weeks ago, some exciting news made the rounds about their new chip-based, mirrorless LiDAR system. DARPA only has a $3 billion budget (“only”), which sounds like a lot, but might not even be enough to cover the cost of a fabrication system if that MIT article is right.

Of course, other technologies have already begun to make their way into our lives–flash LiDAR in geiger and avalanche mode for one. But that’s another great example of the delay between a technology being developed and us actually getting our hands on it. The US department of defense has been using geiger-mode flash LiDAR for years, and we are just now seeing it in the commercial sector.

Let yourself get excited about these new technologies, but don’t get too caught up in the hype. Some of them probably are the future. But don’t necessarily expect that you’ll be seeing them any time soon. 

I leave you with this, the most important line from that MIT piece: “Magic Leap executives indulged in the company’s increasingly common hand-waving, talking about “special” photons and wizard-training school.” 

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