A giant astronaut towered over the crowd of eager attendees surging toward registration at Magic Leap’s first official developers conference this week. With lanyards around our necks, we all gave off a spooky glow from the colorful devices attached to our name badges, as if we were heading into a rave circa 1988 or a house party on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
As the line snaked into the Magic Box in downtown Los Angeles, you could feel the anticipation. For the assembled developers, this had been a long time coming.
The trippy graphics everywhere reinforced a truly “out there” theme. In fact the whole morning was an oddly unreal experience with speakers on the dais constantly urging us to “open your mind.” Video game designer Robin Hunicke read a poem before what seemed like “Philosophy 101” lectures from Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz and resident futurist Neal Stephenson. Stephenson later demonstrated an early prototype of a game where goats nibbled a sofa.
If you have 3:15 hours (that’s not a mistype) to spare, you can watch the entire keynote below. I slipped out after 2.5 to check out the demo annex.
Make Your Way Into the Magicverse
According to Abovitz and Stephenson, Magic Leap wants its legions of developers to create content (because there still isn’t a lot of that, or them, yet) for “The Magicverse”: a heady mashup of the Multiverse, Meta, and The Matrix (of course).
This vision includes sensory field computing, light field, sound field, haptics, high fidelity, and co-presence (hanging out together in our worlds while wearing augmented or virtual reality headsets)—a sort of digital layered mesh stretched out over our cities.
“Hey,” said Abovitz onstage, summing up his grand ideas. “We need a Burning Man [of our own] so we can do a vision quest!”
The crowd cheered wildly. The concept of Burning Man they understood, even if they’ve never actually been there. That was an idea they could get behind.
Is the Magic Leap One Creator Edition (now shipping for a cool $2,300) worth the $2.3 billion invested? I can’t see any difference to the Microsoft HoloLens to be honest, but do read my PCMag colleague Will Greenwald’s excellent in-depth evaluation of the device.
But more to the point, is augmented reality, versus virtual reality, the Next Pattern of Computing, as conference speakers claimed?
Who knows? It might be.
Overlaying the real with the unreal (AR) is an interesting prospect with money-making potential. Which, let’s face it, we haven’t seen much of in the VR world to date. However, it might not be as madly exciting (or as mystical) as Magic Leap has suggested.
I’ve tried some intriguing AR solutions, from Kopin’s AR glasses for high-performance cyclists to startups like Vuforia and Baobab. These examples of AR mean business. But they’re not thrilling. Everyone knows you need some sparkly magic before the market gets really excited—which is where author George RR Martin comes in.
Climb Aboard The Navigator
While the keynotes limped toward their final hour, I slipped out the back and headed to the demos. This was where the good stuff was—the room at the party you were looking for. Behind a thick black floor-to-ceiling drape was a massive 3D-printed sculpture like something out of a dystopian future (in a good way).
There, I met Jeff Fullerton, Partnerships Manager at Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based entertainment company that so intrigued George RR Martin that he invested some of his Games of Thrones millions in the firm. Fullerton showed me how to climb up into The Navigator, handed me a Magic Leap One, pointed to the luminous neon control panel, and told me to “look ahead.”
(Image: Kate Russell)
An AR mesh layer appeared in my field of view as I followed (somewhat) a narrative of a lost planet called Eemia. I’m not sure what it was really about, but I didn’t care. It looked cool, I felt transported, and that’s what “Xtended Reality” (XR) is about.
The Navigator “is our first foray into the next generation of tech,” explained Fullerton. “We’ve been doing R&D for the past two years in a 70,000-foot fabrication space in a former tractor manufacturer facility in Santa Fe, where we get to use a high-powered laser to cut out these huge sheets of steel and bring in this augmented layer.”
(Image: Kate Russell)
Meow Wolf was an early stage development partner with Magic Leap and can bring a whole new audience to its platform, especially with two more unique locations opening in Denver and Vegas by 2020.
But will it make money?
Experiences like The Navigator could become this generation’s version of the video game arcades where I spent a great deal of my youth in Brighton, England. But I can’t quite see how it becomes enough of a real business for Magic Leap.
Meet the Virtual Humans
In the end, despite all the fabulous futuristic fantasy talk, the only really viable business models for AR (let alone the other “Rs”) are military, manufacturing, and medicine. As I saw with Kopin, which works with Raytheon, and ScopeAR, which has industrial contracts, layering on digital augmentation onto your IRL surroundings has a real use case.
Speaking on a panel at the conference was Dr. Skip Rizzo from USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies, and his development partner, Arno Hartholt. We’ve met before; I wrote about Dr. Rizzo’s work with VR to help soldiers dealing with PTSD after tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and providing virtual coaches for the United States Veterans Initiative.
Like Meow Wolf, Dr. Rizzo’s team at ICT was an early development partner on the Magic Leap platform and tried out some cool new ideas. They ported their virtual humans technology into Magic Leap’s AR interface and are currently trialing it, in partnership with the Dan Marino Foundation, to help people with autism find employment. Check it out in the video below.
I spoke with Dr. Rizzo, via email, before the conference. Here are edited and condensed extracts of our conversation:
Dr. Rizzo, how long have you had access to Magic Leap’s dev kit?
We received access to a Magic Leap prototype during the spring of 2018 after a long series of collaborative discussions with Magic Leap and the Dan Marino Foundation.
What’s your opinion of it?
Magic Leap One has been an impressive device to work with. It opens your eyes to the future of mixed reality systems that will continue to evolve over time! I believe Magic Leap One (and the inevitable successor versions) will become a real workhorse system, especially in its use for these sorts of pro-social applications.
How does it integrate into your work at USC?
We have been developing the Vocational Interaction Training Agent (VITA) system for a few years now, but have been limited to presenting the virtual human content on a flat screen monitor or TV. Now we can actually place a virtual human within a real-world environment of relevance. We believe that by leveraging such a real-world context, that the training effects may better transfer to actual performance when the user is called upon to actually interact in a job interview with a real person! This work is focusing on helping folks on the autism spectrum improve their job interviewing skills.
What have you built for the platform to date, and what are your plans to use this in your work moving forwards?
We aim to expand this system for other populations, including military veterans and for helping people about to be released from incarceration, where getting a job upon release is related to reduced recidivism. Also, I want expand the work to social skills training beyond just job interview skills…perhaps build a social skills “obstacle course” that would be generally helpful for a lot of folks beyond just those on the autism spectrum. The integration of virtual humans with mixed reality systems offers incredible opportunities for many kinds of clinical and general training applications. We have a few other ideas on the drawing board that I can’t discuss at this time, but they are very exciting and are in the same “prosocial” direction that we have taken with our work in the past.
Is Magic Leap the Future of Computing?
What Dr. Rizzo was doing clearly has a use—several, in fact—and business viability.
Fantastical keynotes and goat demos aside, it was fun to be around developers who are clearly enthusiastic about the potential of the platform. But as Dr. Rizzo said, it’s more likely that—when all the hype has died down—the useful parts of the AR platform become more workhorse and less show pony, delivering real business use cases for military, medicine, and manufacturing.
But at that point, I have a feeling Rony Abovitz and his crew will have headed to the desert to vision quest their next venture.
If you fancy your chances of “hacking (or editing) reality,” apply for the Mixed Reality Hackathon, hosted by new Magic Leap partner and investor AT&T, set for Nov. 9-11 in San Francisco.