"Today, our world feels divided." Rony Abovitz, CEO of the infamous mixed reality startup Magic Leap stood awkwardly on a circular stage, surrounded by hundreds of attendees of his company's first developer conference, and first major public-facing event, eyeing a teleprompter, arms behind his back. "It feels broken," he said. "Our new medium of spatial computing feels fresh. It doesn't carry the baggage and negative headlines that are dominating the news today."
That, of course, is debatable. Few companies can attract titanic levels of investment, spawn years of breathless, myth-making press coverage, slowly frustrate its own fan base, get slapped with workplace-related lawsuits, and drift perilously towards becoming an industry-wide punchline without releasing a single product — all while retaining a $US6 ($8) billion valuation. Magic Leap somehow managed to pull it off.
The Florida-based company was once the trendiest, most enigmatic entity in tech — in the mid-2010s, I remember hearing stories of friends of friends of someone they knew trying this augmented reality thing, and it was awesome — riding the wave of a half billion of Google cash, delighted reactions to concept videos, and an ejaculatory Wired cover story.
At the heart of it was Abovitz, who drummed up anticipation for Leap by, say, comparing the company to NASA during the moonshot. "The space program had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and we're in our Apollo phase," he told Fast Company in 2014. Abovitz describes Magic Leap as producing "cinematic reality," which he has long proclaimed will beget "a complete shift in visual computing."
After years of intense secrecy and relative silence, in August, Magic Leap finally launched its flagship product, a mixed reality rig featuring goggles, a control wand, and clip-on computer pack, to developers, who could purchase it for $US2295 ($3223). This week, the company held its inaugural developer conference, to try to entice third-party creators, and to introduce the gear to a wider audience.
In many ways, this is the final stage of the product's public debut. In 2015, Abovitz told Wired, "When we launch it, it is going to be huge." After spending two days at LEAPcon, I feel it is my duty — in the name of instilling a modicum of sanity into an age where a company that has never actually sold a product to a consumer can be worth a billion dollars more than the entire GDP of Fiji — to inform you that it is not.
Magic Leap clearly wants its public launch to appear huge — who wouldn't? In decidedly Magic Leapian fashion, the company covered an entire side of LA Mart, the 12-story building in downtown Los Angeles where the conference was to be held, with a psychedelic image of an astronaut and the tagline 'Free Your Mind'. In similarly Leapian fashion, the actual demos and keynote took place in the basement, where a wrong turn could land you in shipping and receiving and cell reception was nil.
Early on the morning of the first day of the conference, I was escorted past home décor storefronts and rug shops into the bowels of the building, where an array of demos awaited in a large, modernist industrial-chic room.
I passed a large raised map of New Zealand on my left, part of an AR experience sponsored by Air New Zealand, a kind of immersive CAD simulator on my right, and onto the setup station, where the Magic Leap team determined my headset parameters (there are two different sizes, and a couple adjustable parts) and marked the results on the card I'd carry around to show at the different demo stations. I was a 1-2-2-X (no prescription).
At one demo station an employee joked that one day, that'd be like our driver's licence, an ID we'd have to carry everywhere. Haha, I said.
First up was a demo for Wayfair's home decorating and spatial commerce app, where you could drag a poster or a desk off the menu and into the actual room you were standing in, or you theoretically could, as it only seemed to work about half the time. It was also the same archetype of augmented reality demo that's been shown many times in the past, with Google Tango and HoloLens.
Next was a trek outside to a huge room that housed a mech statue built by the "immersive experiences" company Meow Wolf. I climbed into its cockpit for a sort of navigation simulator, which mostly involved dragging little planetary balls around concentric circles on its dashboard.
More sophisticated was Leap's in-house Create app, which lets you drop little low-res figures and building blocks around a room, where they respond to real-world objects. Cartoon reefs could be sprouted from walls, knights could be made to do battle on a table, and UFOs could be let loose to fly around the room; it was cute and whimsical, and children might enjoy spending time with it.
I played an augmented reality version of Rovio's Angry Birds — also cute and whimsical. There was a Porg-care simulator from Lucasfilms' ILMxLab, which was not only cute and whimsical, but also a fairly sophisticated example of Magic Leap's potential capabilities: If you turned a smart device on in the room, the little creatures would interact with it, fur blown by a fan, dancing to music played by a speaker, falling asleep in front of the TV.
The marquee Magic Leap game, released at the conference, Dr. Grordbort's Invaders, was, yes, cute and whimsical, and showed that the goggles could deliver a bigger-budget kind of gaming experience.
There was a madcap pest control game that involved smashing spiders with a bat. There was Andy Serkis delivering a Shakespearean monologue under a tree. There was a quiz game on that big map of New Zealand, narrated by a 3D hedgehog (I think). There was a lot of augmented cuteness and whimsy, and there was not much else.
You know that weird sensation when it feels like everyone around you is participating in some mild mass hallucination, and you missed the dosing? The old 'what am I possibly missing here' phenomenon? That's how I felt at LEAP a lot of the time, amidst crowds of people dropping buzzwords and acronym soup at light speed, and then again while I was reading reviews of the device afterwards — somehow, despite years of failing to deliver anything of substance, lots of the press is still in Leap's thrall.
(Augmented and virtual reality stories are catnip for tech journalists; they set an easy scene with a gripping lede: I'm staring up at a massive blue whale, and I swear it could swallow me whole — but it's all in my goggles, etc.) Demo after demo, I felt like, sure, that was kind of neat.
The games were charming, if often glitchy and simplistic, and yes, it might be helpful for architects to be able to blow up and walk around their designs. I liked the developers, who were smart and funny. Some of the graphics and interactions were very nicely rendered. But there wasn't anything — besides a single demo, which I'll get to in a second — that I'd feel compelled to ever do again.
It felt genuinely crazy to me that people could get too excited about this, especially after years of decent VR and the Hololens, without having a distinct monetary incentive to do so.
As many have noted, the hardware is still extremely limiting. The technology underpinning these experiences seems genuinely advanced, and if it were not for a multi-year blitzkrieg marketing campaign insisting a reality where pixels blend seamlessly with IRL physics was imminent, it might have felt truly impressive. (Whether or not it's advanced enough to eventually give rise to Leap's prior promises is an entirely open question at this point.)
For now, the field of vision is fairly small and unwieldy, so images are constantly vanishing from view as you look around. If you get too close to them, objects will get chopped up or move awkwardly. And if you do get a good view, some objects appear low res and transparent; some looked like cheap holograms from an old sci-fi film. Text was bleary and often doubled up in layers that made it hard to read, and white screens looked harsh — I loaded Google on the Helio browser and immediately had to shut my eyes.
According to Magic Leap, over 1000 people had signed up to be here. Why?, I wanted to ask all of them at once. Do you think this is the future? Do you really? Answering that question, I thought, might help clear up whether Magic Leap will become the most expensive vaporware of our era — the most storied company to occupy the technological imagination maybe since that other Magic-monikered behemoth of yore, Apple spinoff General Magic, which saw some of the brightest tech minds of the 90s pursue a revolutionary personal communications technology without ever yielding much in the way of substance, much less profit.
Over the course of about two dozen interviews, I found a mix of curious and sceptical developers, obviously true believers, hedging corporate futurists, and cold hard opportunists.
"Let's think of this as the first iPhone," Shrenik Sadalgi, the Director of Next Gen Experiences at Wayfair, told me. "Eight years from now, if everyone has this device, how powerful is that?" It's a refrain I heard again and again from the more optimistic developers — the allusion being, of course, this is the future in chrysalis, that the first iPhone was relatively crude, too, and few would have predicted it would define the product class that would dominate not only the entire tech industry, but most people's daily lives. Nobody wants to miss out on being on the ground floor of the next iPhone.
And yes, there were the believers: I met one developer who'd flown from Singapore to retrieve his goggles and attend the event, and another who said he'd scrimped and saved before managing to buy the device, which left him broke. "I made the Leap, I guess," laughed Brian Wong, a 30-year-old who says he is self-funding a brain-computer interface project. "I'm still paying it back. I had to really scrape every penny I got to come up with $US2400 ($3371), you know. But honestly, no regrets."
The thing about the first iPhone analogy is that while, sure, it was imperfect, there was a UI paradigm and several elements that were immediately gripping, that "just worked" as a certain late turtlenecked guru might have said.
It was immediately clear why a touch-based Google Maps app or a graphics-rich mobile web browser was something you'd want to have in your pocket all the time, or that scrolling through an address book with the flick of a finger made sense — Magic Leap One's appeal beyond entertainment is almost entirely abstract. Cuteness and whimsy only go so far.
"This is more like the Apple Newton than the Apple iPhone," one venture capitalist told me. It's something that I thought about a lot as I moved from demo to demo, listened to keynotes, and sat in on developer meetings. Magic Leap has spent over half a decade and quite actually billions of dollars, and has not yet come up with something particularly compelling to do with its allegedly world-transforming computing system, besides shoot robots in the face.
"We're still in the make crazy shit phase," Rony Abovitz told me at the steampunk-themed launch event for the Dr. Grordbort robot shooter game. Costumed robot soldiers parted the crowd with ray gun props, refusing to break character. When I asked Abovitz what most excited him about his platform, that was first off his tongue ("I love that, because I love science fiction").
When I asked what use cases for the Magic Leap he was most interested in, he was quick to reply: "Have you seen the Andy Serkis thing upstairs? It's a whole different thing," he said, shaking his head. In that demo, you could walk around Serkis's likeness while he delivers a monologue under a tree that exhibits seasonal change. It felt to me a little like a higher-calibre version of something that might play outside a museum exhibit every fifteen minutes.
This question of utility continued to plague me throughout the keynote the next day, when Abovitz and company described blanketing cities in something called the Magicverse that would utilise 5G networks to layer the city with — what, exactly? Robot-shooter games? So, in an interview with Magic Leap's chief content officer, Rio Caraeff, I asked him if Magic Leap could perfectly design one app or experience to convey exactly what the device is capable of, ideally, what would he do?
"I want the Star Wars universe in my life. I want, you know, droids to roll around my floor and be my personal assistants and to help me get things done," he said. "I want to look up at the sky and see Tie Fighters and X-wings fighting. I want to be able to have a companion droid, and I want the intelligence behind it. I want that persistence in my life."
That seems a unifying thread; perhaps unsurprisingly, Magic Leap is almost entirely built on the visions of grown men wanting to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds. Its chief focus is entertainment, games, diversions — cinematic reality, sure; pushing the frontiers of computing? Not as much.
(It is telling that the most compelling glimpse of a possible future with Magic Leap was relayed to me by nonwhite, non-male product manager Sakina Groth, who spoke to me convincingly about a world freed from the tyranny of browser tabs, where you could 'leave' web pages in physical spaces where you'd need them; recipes in the kitchen, research articles in the office, and so on).
Someone on the product team must have realised that people might want something to do in the Magicverse besides recreating Ready Player One, which might be why, after years of Apple-esque ironclad secrecy and silence, Magic Leap is suddenly very eager to welcome the development community aboard.
"At the get-go, I was very trepidatious because there were a lot of promises and there were, well, there was a lot of intrigue," Alexandria Heston, a Chicago-based XR designer. "And when they ended up releasing the hardware, I'm not going to lie, it was a letdown. But since that moment in time, the amount of outreach at the company has been great — I've never had a company approach me and ask me how to help me do what I do." Magic Leap, it seems, is desperate to get developers on board.
Perhaps it knows that if it's going to persuasively make a case to consumers that it's worth spending upwards of $US2000 ($2809) on a bulky headset, it's going to need some help. At the keynote, John Donovan, CEO of AT&T (another iPhone parallel is that AT&T is an early partner) pointed out that the iPhone really took off after it opened the App Store to developers, which is true, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all helped fuel its rise.
So Magic Leap may be outsourcing its quest for a keystone use case to developers. "I get asked that question a lot: What is the killer app for Magic Leap?" said Caraeff, who admits he doesn't quite have an answer. "And I think that what I've learned is that there really is no one killer app. There's different killer apps for different people in different industries."
The lone candidate I saw was a demo of MICA, which Leap is positioning as a personal assistant. But in the demo, she was seated at a table, where she beckoned for me to join her, after which she proceeded to stare at me with Marina Abramovic-like intensity (she was, in fact, designed to mimic the famous 'The Artist Is Present' performance piece), daring me to stare back.
Being provoked by a lifelike digital avatar in a real human space was a genuinely novel sensation, and the interaction felt emotionally charged and raw, a shot across the uncanny valley. Throughout the conference, I heard people who'd tried the demo lament that Magic Leap was planning to use MICA as its Alexa, when it was capable of much more. For what it's worth, Abovitz didn't mention her when he was listing the things he was excited about.
The Magic Leap Creator's Edition has been available for purchase through the company website for two months now. Caraeff says that 50,000 user accounts have been created there. He wouldn't tell me the number of times the software developer kit has actually been downloaded, though he said it was fewer than that, or the number of Leap headsets shipped, which was fewer still. He wouldn't say whether a device aimed at consumers would ship next year, though his deflections led me to believe it would not.
At this point, it might not matter. Magic Leap has been anointed by the VCs and investors, by the tech press, by Google, by one of the major telecoms, by the augmented reality developers looking for a ground floor to get in on, by the great pool of capital that is in desperate search of a new technological ecosystem to pour into, a new platform to colonise. If Magic Leap succeeds in the end, it will be because it is already too big to fail.
Consider: Magic Leap had collected $US2.3 ($3.23) billion in investment — recently from the state-run sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia, a nation that has found itself in the news after its government allegedly ordered a squad to kill and dismember a journalist critical of the regime inside an embassy — all before releasing even a beta product.
According to Bloomberg, it is currently in talks to build a system for the US military that would "increase lethality" of soldiers. (Caraeff declined to comment on any specifics, but confirmed discussions with a number of government agencies were taking place.)
This is why any apparent eagerness to prop up this company's cute and whimsical efforts perplexes me a bit. It seems to me we should, at the very least, be holding Magic Leap up to the standards and product descriptions put forward by its own founder and creators — and by those standards, right now, Magic Leap is bad.
We should feel comfortable saying that, especially because that cuteness and whimsy is veiling a series of ethically dubious partnerships and investments. Why, we might ask, is this company deserving of anyone's uncritical goodwill? Why does it seem like everyone's intent on grading this on the world's most generous curve?
Don't get me wrong; in many other contexts, these demos would be cool, spirited experiments in an emerging medium. I do not want to shit on the hard work of developers, coders, and creative minds who've toiled to build some compelling interactions and concepts.
But this is a company that has not demonstrated where it plans on pointing its product-oriented future, that has routinely mislead journalists about those products, and made promises that have failed to materialise. So before developers move to adopt it, before we consider anointing this as the next iPhone or whatever, assessing whether it can deliver on its most basic promises seems like a decent measure to judge its trustworthiness in other arenas, should they ever come to pass.
This is a company that wants to blanket whole cities in a 'Magicverse' that will dictate the very nature of perceived reality — why would anyone treat it with kid gloves?
"Today, our world feels divided," Abovitz said in that opening keynote, before again stressing Magic Leap's freedom from baggage, its untainted platform. "As a creative collective, all of you who are here today, we can refuse to perpetuate the baggage that weighs down the traditional mediums that came before."
Facebook has failed us, the implication seemed to be, Twitter has too many Nazis. Hollywood has too many Harvey Weinsteins, radio too many Limbaughs. We're a clean slate — climb aboard. It's a far cry from its onetime pitch to be a world-changing computing paradigm back in the heady days of 2014. It is also astonishingly naive, as if this new platform would somehow be immune to the same divisions and conflicts that have stained every medium that came before it.
It's even more astonishing when you consider that this a company in which a notorious human rights-violating nation now owns a major stake, a company that is reportedly open to building lethality enhancers for the military, a company that settled a sex discrimination lawsuit just last year — things some might consider "baggage." The creative collective can indeed refuse to perpetuate the baggage of platforms past — it can refuse to develop for a company that is taking Saudi money and military contracts before it ships a consumer product, for instance.
Given the toxicity of those past mediums, maybe it's worth considering another approach: Let's examine who's asking for "spatial reality," really, besides the engines of capital and a handful of science fiction aficionados and men with dreams of coexisting in the Star Wars universe. If the breakdown and chaos of internet culture has taught us anything, it's that new platforms are exceptionally prone to abuse and misuse, and it's beyond important to understand and trust who is behind the wheel.
The general technology is cool but in search of a use — no one, ultimately, could articulate why Magic Leap needs to exist outside of entertainment. The product is flawed and overhyped, if occasionally interesting. The company's moral compass is unreadable at best and already severely compromised at worst.
It's time to stop giving Magic Leap the benefit of the doubt, until it demonstrates it's worth sharing our reality with.