Magic Leap is a company you should be paying attention to, even if you aren”t allowed to totally know what they”re doing yet.
Right now, E3 is underway in Los Angeles, a major press event covering the world of video games and, increasingly, “experiential storytelling” that involves new technology like the various virtual reality set-ups that are just starting to show up for consumers. Both Xbox and PlayStation are dedicated to cracking the VR problem, and there will be plenty of content churned out. Unsurprisingly, most of what we”re seeing so far is built around big consumer properties with high recognition, like the Batman Arkham VR from Rocksteady that I included in my E3 round-up on Monday. EA and DICE, makers of Battlefront, also revealed the Stars Wars: X-Wing VR Mission. Both of those look cool, and both will use the VR set-up that the tech industry is hoping we will all want to buy and wear.
Magic Leap is something else, though, doing something different. Instead of a virtual reality company, they appear to be focusing more on augmented reality, which is similar but different in one key way. If you”re in a virtual reality environment, everything is created. Everything you”re seeing is part of the same generated space. Augmented reality takes our world and lays a new coat of paint on top of it, and done right, it is more of a shock to the central nervous system than VR. There”s something eerie and tangible about it. I know that the tests I”ve seen and the little bits and pieces I”ve been able to experience so far all left a much stronger impression on me than any VR I”ve tried yet.
Magic Leap and Lucasfilm Ltd. are partnering for ILMxLAB, a new project that was announced at the WIRED Business Conference, and the demo they delivered for a Star Wars augmented reality experience is, even seen second-hand on video like this, absolutely mind-blowing.
I feel very lucky to be able to watch the emergence of this technology. I think we”re on the brink of a new media, one that will be very different than either games or movies but drawing on both for initial inspiration. Right now, VR is a toy. There are practical applications that could radically transform the way we teach and the way we live, but for now, to get the technology into people”s lives and homes, entertainment is the beachhead. That”s how you make people want something. And while I love the idea of putting on the goggles and piloting an X-Wing, there is something hallucinatory about being able to see R2-D2 and C-3PO in your own living room, interacting with your actual furniture.
I”ve heard rumbles that one of the biggest films being produced this year has, at the very least, explored the idea of partnering with Magic Leap to create a unique experience, one that will appear to spill off of the screen and into the actual theater. There are major questions, of course, including who pays to put yet another new technology into theaters, and, of course, whether Magic Leap is actually up to the task that the filmmaker envisions. Whenever I read about Magic Leap, I find it all very confusing, and I think that”s their game plan right now. I don”t know what a photonic lightfield chip is or how it works, but I do know that there is some sort of headset you wear that is not just a VR rig. They”re being that secretive right now about how they”re doing what they”re doing, but the time is coming for them to make that big splash that starts to put this into the hands of actual users. I think the Star Wars partnership is huge for them, and if they do end up working with this big SF Hollywood movie, they could deliver an experience that would profoundly alter how we think about the space inside a movie theater and how we interact with that screen. Imagine seeing some of the most beloved iconography of the “80s jump off of the movie screen for a chase through the theater, speaking directly to the audience while climbing over them, dodging around them, or even using them for cover.
There is no word when any of this will actually be made public, but if I was a betting man, I”d say next year is going to be a significant one in terms of learning whether or not the public is ready for whatever it is that all of this will become. There is a new vocabulary to be learned here by storytellers, a virtual frontier waiting to be conquered by whoever thinks outside the box enough to really embrace all of the potential here. Simply imitating movies or thinking of all of this as a game seems limiting, when these tools seem to be designed to set artists and storytellers free.