Much digital ink has been spilled with contempt on Magic Leap. Much of that gloating in the media was due to what some say were unfulfilled promises, as opposed to some of the early hype surrounding the product. Others just seemed to be headed in the wrong direction due to the startup’s Apple-esque secrecy and tendency to try to come up with new terms and frameworks for things that were usually already in play.
But in the midst of the fog of all the negative headlines, something was lost. Namely, much of the great work done by a group of incredibly talented people within the company. Specifically, the Magic Leap Studios team and its work to create an augmented reality experience called The Last Light.
The story is about a young woman who returns to the home of her recently deceased grandmother. As she organizes and cleans up what is now an empty house, along with the family cat, we are taken through a series of exciting and emotional memories of happier times that helped shape the woman’s character. The project was written and directed by Jeremy Vanhoozer, who, along with the Magic Leap Studios team, was one of many affected by the company’s massive layoffs earlier this year.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in VR and AR, and more often than I expect, I’ve come across something that changes my view of the media. But nothing has ever really let me get a lump in my throat and wipe away tears – until now. See, I lost my own grandmother a few years ago. It was not a tragic or particularly unexpected death, because she lived a very long and full life. Still, she was lively, funny, and engaged to the end. I loved her. The loss was painful, and I was still miss her.
Like the granddaughter character in The Last Light, my grandmother was one of my best friends, and her strong and honest influence has guided my path for years. I thought I had come to terms with her passing in every possible way. So it came as a surprise to find that while trying out the experience, which was quietly released in August, I was genuinely moved in a way that I had never experienced before through an AR experience.
As I walked through the past of the character’s life with her grandmother and walked around my apartment to view various photos, sights, and sounds, the experience unexpectedly helped me grieve my own grandmother’s death in a whole new way. At one point I had to stop, take the headset off for a few minutes and restrain myself. That is how honestly and sincerely told Vanhoozer’s story.
It turns out that Rony Abovitz’s dream of giving the world some sort of “dream machine” to connect us with spatial narratives that transcend the screen was indeed possible. Unfortunately, market forces are not always fueled by dreams. Time and money caught up with the founder’s aspirations, and the company was forced to move into corporate business – something I’ve often suggested, especially in the face of stiff competition from Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and companies like Vuzix, among others.
Storytelling on immersive platforms is clearly a future worth pursuing, as the success of the Oculus Quest 2 is now proving. But mainstream consumers are asking to spend $ 2,300 on a brand new device (the Magic Leap 1) and a largely unknown platform, while many still question (back in pre-Quest 2018) the idea of spending $ 600 for a headset (the first Oculus Rift) and a $ 1,000 computer to enjoy the many wonders of VR, that was, shall we say, ambitious.
These are lessons Microsoft learned on the road to the equally pricey HoloLens 2. The original HoloLens had a lot of gaming and storytelling experience, but eventually Microsoft realized that its high-end, high-price device was better aimed at enterprises for now. customers who wouldn’t so shudder at the expense of access to the future of computers. From my point of view, it seemed like Abovitz was betting that more creativity, cooler design, and a good dose of Apple-style mystique would enable Magic Leap to overcome these pricing and market-based hurdles.
The thing is, Apple hasn’t gotten to its mystique in just a few years. It took decades for serious computer users to stop calling Apple products overpriced toys. And Apple also had its own near-death experience led by John Sculley, who took over after its founder, Steve Jobs, was fired. Finally, Jobs returned to the struggling company, only sober and with fresh eyes on both creativity and profit.
Like early Apple doubters, Magic Leap has amassed a healthy group of skeptics, many of whom declared the company dead after this year’s massive layoffs. Critics often seemed less invested in investigating the technical merits and / or shortcomings of the hardware and platform and usually seemed just annoyed that an upstart was trying to profile himself as the apple of immersive computing, with all the overstretched secrecy and, yes, the arrogance that invites such framing.
The reality, however, is that Magic Leap is not “dead”. The company secured a new $ 350 million investment earlier this year and recently brought on board veteran technology executive Peggy Johnson to lead the company confidently into its business future. In short, Johnson has already dropped the company’s previously tedious mystery approach and is at the forefront of the media to explain exactly what Magic Leap intends to accomplish in the corporate sector.
All of this means that the Plantation, Florida-based company is probably done promoting itself as some sort of entertainment and gaming dream factory. The medical applications and factory education once cited as bookends on Magic Leap’s entertainment ambitions are now its main courses.
Of course, there are still some Magic Leap 1 developers who will continue to create games and tell stories for the device, as shown, for example, by a new wizard experience unveiled in Japan earlier this week.
Within the walls of Magic Leap, however, the mission is clear: enterprise first. And while many have turned their eyes away from the space computing company, assuming the worst is, under the radar, Magic Leap is in the midst of a brand new and very aggressive recruitment drive for developer roles in medical technology, defense, hardware and software engineering and sales .
Will the business succeed? Well, it survived 2020 which is an achievement in itself, as many established and brand new startups have learned. What 2021 means for the company is likely to be determined by Johnson and her team.
It’s a bittersweet turn. Stories like The Last Light (which is still free and available in the Magic Leap World store) demonstrate the power of immersive computing at an in-depth level. I’m sad to see the ending of Magic Leap Studios as we knew it. But Magic Leap’s shift to business is actually good news for everyone. Not only is it the surest path to survival and ultimate profit for the company, it is also the kind of direct competition Microsoft needs to keep the HoloLens platform on its toes.
And if, as an indirect result, the dreamers and storytellers first envisioned by the founder of Magic Leap continue to create passionate stories and games on the platform because it survives through future business success, then that’s a win too.