Draw & Code’s intrepid John Keefe headed to LEAPCon to get the skinny on Magic Leap and the community of Creators they are building. Here’s his post-event thoughts…
For the sixth time this year I find myself making the trip to California, a journey which is starting to feel more like a regular commute ever since Draw & Code ventured this far west five years ago to showcase to the world how Liverpool does immersive. This trip I’m particularly excited about as it includes attending the inaugural LEAPcon. For once it’s not one of the tech giants of Silicon Valley drawing us to the sunshine state but a little startup from the other side of the US, Magic Leap.
A startup like no other in history, Magic Leap have set themselves a fairly lofty challenge in one of the most exciting areas of technology, spatial computing. The holy grail in terms of what we do at Draw & Code is having hardware that seamlessly interprets and blends virtual content with the physical world around us, they call it the Magicverse but we’ll get into that a bit later. LEAPcon comes in a year that has seen Magic Leap come out of stealth and share the fruits of their labour in terms of their first headset, the Magic Leap One. Building mixed reality glasses isn’t the only thing they’ve been doing though, in fact it’s really the tip of the iceberg. Much of their work for the past eight years has been around creating the wider ecosystem to allow creators like ourselves to do what we do best.
As tech companies go, Magic Leap have a fascinating origin story with their roots being firmly in storytelling, comic books and fantasy. What started as an idea in a graphic novel has since gone on to become a product and a philosophy that, they hope, will redefine how we will interact with the world around us. Everything Magic Leap does subscribes to the Disney Imagineering school of thought to surprise, entertain and create wonder. This was very apparent at the opening reception which took place at the California Space Centre. An unusual choice of venue for most companies but for Magic Leap it feels like the norm because why wouldn’t you want to host your reception under an actual space shuttle that has spent 299 days in space? The drama of standing in the shadows of Endeavour captures perfectly the journey Magic Leap are embarking on and obviously they didn’t miss a trick by augmenting astronauts in to the scene when viewing through the ML1.
The following morning we strapped in for the three hour marathon keynote and you had to wonder what a company that had just released their first dev kit and had previously been shrouded in mystery could talk about for three hours. Well it turns out they could probably have gone on for three days with how busy they’ve been.
For starters, there was a focus on diversity and inclusion from the start – this felt welcoming to all. Indeed, the social function of mixed reality was an emphasis. As was the use of Helio – Magic Leap’s web browser that employs many of the principles of WebXR. Magic Leap is not just about games or niche enterprise functions – this was spatial computing embracing the everyday functions we use phones and computers for. Not many people may have these headsets, but there’s no reason why they can’t in the future.
Part of the popularisation of this technology is its image – something that Magic Leap seem determined to address. Indeed, while the XR community talk about layers, they are talking about Verses that make up the Magicverse. This is friendly terminology and their explanations on stage made sense to the tech-obsessed and casual observers alike.
After years of gossip around ground-breaking visual technology and Magic Leap’s bespoke operating system (LuminOS), it felt like the use-cases and the creative potential are far more important to the Floridian innovators. One technical partnership announced at LEAPcon that piqued my interest was their collaboration with Sennheiser Ambeo. Draw & Code are one of a handful of developers around the world granted access to the headphone maestro’s audio AR prototypes and we firmly believe that this is an area of immersive technology that will come to be seen as a fundamental part of the XR mix.
Leaving the keynote somewhat dazed I took a little time to appreciate the level of detail Magic Leap apply to everything they touch. The LA venue had been transformed with every surface you looked at being brought to life with stunning projections, large scale artworks and huge physical versions of the characters they’ve introduced us to in their Create application. ‘Free Your Mind’ is the mantra that featured prominently around the venue with the host of keynote speakers and content partners testament to that idea. The likes of Weta, Imaginarium and ILMx make a huge statement about where we’re going with this technology. The greatest free thinking entertainment and visual effects companies on the planet are already pushing this first iteration of Magic Leap to the limit. They all delivered slick demonstrations of what the future of mixed reality holds but Weta had taken it to another level entirely with what they showcased in Dr. Grordbort (or Dr. G if you’re not from New Zealand and find it tricky to say!).
It’s an understatement to say that Weta over-delivered. Before walking in to the conference I would have said there is zero chance of people outside of the developer community spending $2300 on the ML1. It’s clearly not a consumer device but it feels like it already got its killer app (well, experience at least), something that Apple and Google with their mobile SLAM technology haven’t struck upon yet. I’m not classing a digital tape measure as a killer app!
I didn’t get to try out Imaginarium’s experiences this time around but conceptually and visually they looked every bit the experiences I would want from such an innovative studio. Inevitably they were showcasing their mastery of mocap to great effect with Andy Serkis on hand to chat, inspire and enthuse in equal measure.
The other piece of stand-out content for me came from the Mica demo and RSC’s volumetric performance piece. Mica was a fascinating glimpse into the future of AI driven virtual humans. She wasn’t hyper realistic in visual fidelity but was incredibly impressive when it came to reacting to emotions and the user’s actions. The experience consisted of you simply being given a headset and being told by a real human to walk in the room and follow the instructions. After walking in you see Mica sat at a desk (a real one, this is mixed reality after all) and she invites you to take a seat. Initially it feels like you’ve been entered into an augmented reality staring contest before it becomes a very powerful showcase of how the ML1 can monitor micro-facial reactions allowing Mica to respond to your perceived mood. It feels natural, putting human behaviour at the heart of the world-building experience. It’s a masterclass in non-verbal communication by Mica as she points at a real picture on the table and indicates to a space on the wall that it should hang. At the second time of asking I realised she wanted me to hang the picture so I did to which she reacts excitedly. The immersion continues as the picture proceeds to come to life in the form of a smoker’s pipe and Mica removes the virtual pipe before leaving the room, presumably to go find some matches.
RSCs volumetric reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages was beautifully crafted with the performance being supported by stylised, polished visuals that didn’t distract but elevated it to an unexpected level. Accompanied by an equally fitting piece of music, the idea of table-top theatre wasn’t necessarily something I would have thought the world needed but as a medium shift it was very powerful. It was far more compelling to see the play in this format than on one of those digital rectangles hanging on our walls, what were they called again? Another nice touch is how this piece dealt with the inevitable clipping you get from a device that’s field-of-view is much less than we’re used to as humans. They feathered the edges of the content so you don’t ever see a hard edge or the return of those pesky rectangular viewports.
At Draw & Code we are fortunate to have had early demos of the ML1 headset and later to receive a dev kit of our own as part of Magic Leap’s Creator programme. Now we’re fired up after LEAPCon to see where this community takes the device and spatial computing as a whole medium. Let’s make the Magicverse!