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Part three of three in a series.
The Magic Leap One was released on August 8, 2018, priced at $2,295, and only available in select areas at first. People who did not understand the meaning of “developer version” were inevitably disappointed. However, developers, the primary audience for this first edition, were for the most part enthusiastic.
Magic Leap’s AR glasses are similar to the HoloLens, but much more fun and fashionable, in a cartoony, steampunk-like way. Unlike the HoloLens, which has enough room around the eyes to permit users to retain their regular eyewear and their peripheral vision, the Magic Leap One hugs the face and requires a prescription insert. At 40 degrees the field of view of the Magic Leap One is noticeably larger than the 30 degrees of the HoloLens. Magic Leap One seems even larger because much of your peripheral vision is occluded by the design of the HMD, so the AR images rarely leave the field of view. This greatly enhances the suspension of disbelief.
A developer version of a device like the Magic Leap One, with only a few games and demos in its app store, isn’t easy to review. It’s not fair to the product or the reviewer. There’s no infrastructure to support it. The headset shipped with “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders,” a robot wave shooter, “Tonandi”, an interactive sound experience made in collaboration with composer Sigur Rós, “Helio,” their web browser, and “Project Create,” Magic Leap’s answer to Tilt Brush. A spatial version of Rovio’s popular “Angry Birds” was added in October. Launch experiences also included a dramatic demo of what the
Magic Leap One could do for volumetric and live sports, which allows the Magic Leap One user to shift between a courtside seat and a God-eye view. In late 2018, Avatar Chat was launched, along with “Seedling”, which allows users to grow a persistent alien plant in their personal space. More mundane activities like streaming video are also on the roadmap for the first half of 2019.
Two months after the release of the Magic Leap One, on October 9-10, 2018, Magic Leap’s first developer’s conference, the L.E.A.P. Conference (aka LeapCon), took place in downtown Los Angeles. I described it as a nerd Woodstock. When I met Rony Abovitz I told him it was like meeting Jimi Hendrix. I did not know at the time that Abovitz plays guitar, and loves Hendrix, and Woodstock. As I said, Abovitz is full of surprises. In person, he is unassuming, friendly, and clearly excited to have the shackles of secrecy removed from Magic Leap so he can talk freely about AR glasses and his vision of the future.
On stage at the press event, Abovitz was joined by Dr. Grordbort’s designer Greg Broadmore and Weta co-founder Richard Taylor to introduce “Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders” to the world. Abovitz said he’s most excited by the way the game integrates with its surroundings, the same way theater, carnivals, and other live entertainment makes space for themselves in the real world. “This is a ‘tip of the spear’ for us,” he said, “The needs of the Weta team constantly pushed the engineering team forward.”
This conference is critical for Magic Leap. To be successful, the device needs apps. To encourage app development, Magic Leap needs to nurture a robust, creative, and innovative developer community. Magic Leap rolled out the proverbial red carpet for them, beginning with a lavish welcome reception under the space shuttle at the LA Science Museum. When the consumer version of Magic Leap’s device is available through AT&T, hundreds of apps will be needed to please a broad palette of consumer tastes and interests. The conference had a distinctly indie feel to it, though almost all the demos I saw were from well-known companies like Weta, Wayfair, and Rovio.
Magic Leap’s Chief Content Officer, Rio Caraeff, told me that Magic Leap is “a company on the road to market.” His goal is “to superserve developers today. Look for missionaries of the future, that cohort of missionary developers that can’t help themselves. At the same time, we want to blur the line between developer and creator—create an environment where both artists and big companies can thrive.” To support these independent creators, Magic Leap officially launched the Independent Creator Program in November 2018, inviting developers to apply for grants between $20,000 and $500,000. Along with the grant, those selected will receive tech, marketing, and hardware support. No exclusivity is required. Creators retain the rights to their IP and were encouraged to submit multiple proposals. Magic Leap received over 6,000 submissions.
At the same time, said Caraeff, the company is working on larger scale experiences with the world’s leading game developers.
A Coveted Invitation
Not long after the developer’s conference, Abovitz tweeted out a retouched image of Ken Kesey’s Pranksters on their bus in the 1960s. He romanticizes the power they represent to those who grew up in that era. Abovitz wants Magic Leap to embody open, free, democratic, and personal values. He finds inspiration in the convergence of music, technology, and civic engagement the period represents.
The day of the Kesey tweet, I sat in Abovitz’s office, hearing the story of Hiro’s sword from Snow Crash. Now that they’ve launched Magic Leap One, the company wants to build an ecosystem like the ones that support app stores for Apple and Google. Magic Leap needs outsiders. They need nerds to come inside and drink the Kool-Aid. To see what they see. Like Abovitz, the Leapers take a long view. But make no mistake. They are in a rush to get to the future. And they want to tell their story.
Magic Leap’s SVP, Creative Strategy, John Gaeta, joined my interview with Abovitz via Beam, a rolling telepresence device, which is to say an elevated monitor on wheels which he remotely controls from his office on the west coast. It’s about five feet tall. Sort of the height of people at a table. Somehow, it does not seem out of place. As I walked the halls of their Plantation HQ, I noticed there were Beam robots parked all over.
Abovitz takes his inspiration from many places: movies, beat writers, musicians, like the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs and, especially, Walt Disney. Epcot, near where Abovitz grew up in South Florida, made the deepest impression on him. “It blew my mind when I was a kid. I was like, here’s a guy making animated movies and art, and music, but now he’s doing NASA-scale engineering. There’s like monorails, and like—so you can almost think, who else was doing that? He can hang out with the guys at NASA and animators, and Mary Poppins, and all of that. There are no more companies like that.”
Abovitz and Gaeta want to keep that vision of Epcot as the city of the future alive. In fact, it’s one of their north stars. “Not the Epcot the Walt Disney Company ultimately made, which is a theme park,” said Abovitz, “but the Epcot the man Walt Disney never got to make. I would call it the unfinished business of Walt Disney. [Similar to] the unfinished business of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo teams—that spirit.”
“As time goes by, that spirit seemed to dissipate,” Abovitz lamented. “It seemed to lose its vibe. If Walt Disney was hanging around with us, and we were having a conversation, I think he would totally get what we’re doing, and probably yell at us for not doing it faster.”
Into The Magicverse
As SVP of Creative Strategy, John Gaeta is one of Abovitz’s most-trusted lieutenants. Known for his work as visual effects supervisor on the Matrix trilogy, for which he received an Oscar, Gaeta also co-founded and was the Executive Creative Director of Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB where he helped develop numerous future-generation immersive entertainment projects. Both Gaeta and Abovitz are given to soaring rhetoric when describing Magic Leap’s vision.
“I don’t think we’re going to be in a world where we’re going to be in a room all the time. Pokémon Go was interesting because you could run around in the world. That was a very good first experiment, as simple as it was,” said Gaeta. “What I’ve been interested in my first year at Magic Leap is how do we get into city-scale experiences? What would be needed from a tech infrastructure? Not just by Magic Leap, but by a lot of companies that have different parts of a solution that will eventually lead to the ability to register.” Registering is making sense of the AR layered on top of the real world.
“For example, I’m on a street corner in Turin, and on this street corner are a thousand experiences, applications, that have been put here by different kinds of groups. Some could be from the public, some could be from the city of Turin, some could be part of a game universe. Every possible sector you can think of — not just entertainment, transportation, health, government, education, arts, science, every sector you can imagine could create a spatial application. It could be local to one spot, or it could spread across a very large destination and eventually the whole world. The question is how are we going to align, register, and verify that these are applications that we trust and want to be part of… It’s going to take a lot for people to figure out what the system of systems is,” Gaeta told developer and blogger, Tony Vitullo, in a November 2018 interview at the View Conference in Turin, Italy.
“5G is very city-scale. The Magicverse is city-scale, and is growing on top of 5G cities, which are starting to roll out in ‘19,” Abovitz predicted. “They start to roll out more intensely in ‘20, not only in the U.S. but all kinds of modern countries around the world. 2020 is a really big year for 5G. So it’d say ‘19, ‘20, ‘21, ‘22, in that four years, you’re going to see a lot of crazy stuff happening because the companies putting tens of billions of dollars into 5G need reasons why people are using 5G,” he said.
“That’s why we think cities will be the Magicverse,” he continued, “because it’ll be like going to Oz. You enter that thing and it’ll be like walking into a different time-space bubble, and when you leave, and you might feel like you stepped 100 years in the past again.”
The 100-Year Plan
Abovitz and Gaeta say that Magic Leap is committed to making what they call “market meaningful releases” on an annual basis. To supervise the production of the next version of the Magic Leap headset, the company has recently hired Omar Khan as its Chief Product Officer. Years earlier, Khan worked at the same Plantation, FL, building as a Motorola executive. Among other leadership roles in the mobile industry, Khan led Samsung’s smartphone business as Chief Product and Technology Officer. When I met Khan in November 2018, he was relatively new to the company but had already embraced the expansive vision of its founder. “Rony exists in the future,” he said. “Our job is to get the rest of the world there, ” he said.
Caraeff agreed with Khan’s characterization of Abovitz. “Rony lives in multiple worlds simultaneously. The present, five years from now, and ten or even twenty years from now. There are all these threads running through it, and he weaves them together into this roadmap that makes the impossible merely difficult.”
Hovering menacingly over everyone working in AR is Apple’s plans for wearables. Apple CEO Tim Cook has declared AR is Apple’s most promising new technology and admits they are working on AR glasses. The company is remarkably tight-lipped about specifics. No one knows if they’re taking the approach of North or Vuzix, two new companies introducing AR glasses that connect with smartphones by Bluetooth—or if they’re reaching for a true combiner, like HoloLens and Magic Leap, that blend the digital and physical with precise registration.
“No sane person wouldn’t be worried about Apple,” said Miller. “We have vision. Big companies don’t have vision. But they have cash. They have time. But do they have the vision to transform society? The iPod was the 53rd digital music player. They make the canonical product for the market because they understand the customer so well. It takes them several product cycles, but then they make a product which crushes everyone,” he said.
Abovitz isn’t deterred. “When we grow up, ten years from now, we’re not a single-device company,” he explained. “We definitely see an interlocking set of ecosystems. Amazon’s a great model. What they did, if you look back over the last 20 years, they grew up into this Kindle, e-commerce, Amazon Video, and AWS. So our strategy is not to copy that, but it is to say you don’t want to be one component of this whole ecosystem, you want to be a few different interlocking components that propagate each other. And that’s something that’ll become more obvious next year, in two years and five years. You’ll start to see that come together.”
“We’re not a hardware company,” Gaeta emphasized. “We’re a spatial computing company.”
“There’s a cadence you have to be at,” Abovitz continued. “If you look at mobile phones in the last ten years, the change between the first one and this one, our changes are so much bigger each jump. So our architectural jumps have to be leaps.” The demands on AR systems—to work indoors and outdoors, provide a natural field of view and have killer resolution—are manyfold and complex, he said.
“All of our investors are like 10 to 20-year investors. Some are 100-year investors,” said Abovitz. He pointed out that there are no hedge funds among his investors. Like Amazon, it could take more than a decade for Magic Leap to be consistently profitable.
“Before Magic Leap, light field optics, everything we’re talking about, was a pretty obscure topic,” said Macnamara, reflecting on the legacy of Magic Leap’s achievements so far. “Magic Leap took AR out of the journals into the physical world. It’s not every day you get to make an obscure scientific concept something real and important in popular culture,” he said.
“The Secrets of Magic Leap” is adapted from my upcoming book, Convergence, which will be released March 12, 2019. You can pre-order the book on our website, Convergencear.com. As Convergence prepped for print in January 2019, Abovitz and I traded messages on Twitter. “You’ve only got 20% of the story,” he said. To really tell the Magic Leap story with the depth and nuance he would like, I’d need to write a whole book.
End of part three of three. Together, the three parts are a chapter in my upcoming book, Convergence, How The World Will Be Painted with Data. , which will be released March 12, 2019. As Convergence prepped for print in January 2019, Abovitz and I traded messages on Twitter. “You’ve only got 20% of the story,” he said. To really tell the Magic Leap story with the depth and nuance he would like, I’d need to write a whole book.
March 7, 2019 at 06:29AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs