Oct 23, 2014

Magic Leap

Caspar Thykier, Co-founder and CEO, Zappar

Google et al go large on Augmented Reality (or what we’re now calling Cinematic Reality apparently) with $542 million investment in Magic Leap.

So the good news is that Silicon Valley has finally blinked and bet big on augmented reality. Hooray, I say!

What I love is that after all the furrowed brows and scratching of heads amongst analysts about what the right commercial application is for the technology, how you monetise it and stop it being a gimmick, the first place the half a billion goes is to a company called Magic Leap who are selling a dream. Again, Hooray, I say!

Now clearly there’s so much going on behind the scenes here that we’re not privy to: between the Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift with VR and Google and Magic Leap alongside Google Glass with AR. But the announcement makes for great headlines and is a fantastic exercise in trying to re-frame the discourse surrounding AR which on most tech hype curves still languishes in the trough of disillusionment!

Founder of Magic Leap Rony Abovitz in the Verge article clearly wants to distance himself from the term Augmented Reality which, “didn’t necessarily deliver on a promise or live up to expectations”. Agree with you there 100% Rony. Instead he coins the phrase ‘cinematic reality’ whilst humanising the technology describing it as magic; a sensory and visceral experience full of fairies, elves and unicorns (cf. The Magic Leap website is a lesson in dream-catching). Feels warm and cuddly doesn’t it?!

He also wants to distance himself from all other AR developers. In another great piece of positioning in TechCrunch we get the following: “He [Abovitz] likens Magic Leap compared to other AR-type tech to a situation whereby, if you’d come to see the Wright Brothers fly their original airplane in 1903, only to learn that someone else was building a jet in the next hangar over.” Smart stuff and 10/10 to the PR department!

And he’s right. AR needs modernising and reframing. It’s why we have the Zappar Bunny (he of rabbit-out-of-hat magic fame!) as our mascot; and talk about Zappar tapping into the basic human desire for discovery - unlocking a secret life of things; getting people to look again at the world around us with a different lens. We describe these experiences as bite-size entertainment; a snackable morsel that puts a smile on your face and takes you somewhere else. (If only we got the word Magic in our name!).

The key challenges though aren’t so much about the tech (which are pretty challenging if we’re honest) but about the user experience. What will be intriguing to see is how this new system and hardware (and indeed everyone in the eyewear, glass, heads up display camp) is going to deal with interaction, feedback and response after the initial visual wow factor. Will hand gestures, taps and voice control do the trick or leave you looking like the world’s worst mime artist with a tick, talking to himself? Fantastic technology and inspiring images will get you some of the way but the next level is how to make it truly immersive, engaging and natural. 

There’s also an interesting debate on when (and indeed whether) eyewear will become the norm. The joy of a handheld device is that it’s not always on and it’s easy for others to know when you’re present in the room or engaged in screen time.  The physical product creates visual boundaries and clear delineation between people as to what mode you are in. Connecting the real and virtual is one thing. Blurring the lines completely between the two in an always-on mode could be disorientating to both the user and the rest of the world. The possibilities are exciting but there are still many challenges to overcome that aren’t just technical but perhaps more social in nature.

Overall it’s hats off to Rony and his team at Magic Leap for getting the moneymen to take a leap of faith. No other AR company has managed it at this level of investment with that sort of stellar cast of backers. And whatever you want to call it – Augmented Reality, Cinematic Reality or good ol’ fashioned magic this kind of publicity and hype will only help the industry in the long run. A quick glance at the patents filed by the company show there’s some clear and bold method to this magical madness and I for one can’t wait to hold an elephant in my hands and be surrounded by sea horses.