Magic Leap, AirPods & Digital Layers

What our augmented future might look like

Ranjan here. Today I’m writing about trying the Magic Leap and the future of augmented reality.

I've been spending more time at one of my clients, The RLab, a space at the Brooklyn Navy Yard focused on XR/VR/AR (I normally won't promote clients in the Margins, but they're great people). They’re stacked with cool, inaccessibly expensive gadgets and the other day I got to try the Magic Leap.

I'm writing this post to try to get a handle on how incredible it was.

Regular readers know my aversion to over-hyped unicorns with unclear business models or non-commercialized products. When I put on the headset, I certainly had this bias towards Magic Leap. But call me a convert.

I've tried a lot of VR experiences, and love games like Superhot and Beat Saber, but they always felt like a vacation. You’re transported to an intense, magical, entertaining, sometimes stressful environment that was completely separated from your normal reality. That's the point, right?

Grant, a Manager at the RLab, opened the Magic Leap box and handed me the device. The device itself is fairly lightweight (especially when compared to clunky VR headsets) with just a little Discman-looking “computer” you can clip to your belt.

I had to mark up a public Instagram pic, because I certainly did not ask Grant to take my picture trying the device, because I imagine that would be RLab gauche. 

The Magic Begins

The onboarding, holy shit. You do this weird scan of the entire room and it populates an augmented grid, covering everything around you. It manages to “capture” and differentiate objects ranging from an exposed pipe (the RLab is quite industrial-ish) to a coffee cup sitting on a table. The grid slowly engulfs the entire space surrounding you. 

Then it was time to play Angry Birds.

I set up the stack of wooden planks and pigs on a table near me, and got to work. The controller felt like a VR controller, where the act of pulling a slingshot translates oddly well, and I got to work slinging birds. I've tried every notable iOS AR experience, and none of them was ever quite fun. This was a lot of fun.

Then came the real magic. This is the part that I'm fairly convinced I won't be able to do justice, but will give it a Margins try. The Magic Leap Creator app.

For anyone who has used Tilt Brush in VR, painting in 3D is pretty revolutionary. But here, I was walking around, swirling reds and greens and purples, feeling like a futuristic Rhythmic Gymnast, painting directly into the “real-life” space I was already in.

This best captures how I felt, and is . also one of the greatest comedic performances of all time

Everything Changes

I was busy dropping little cartoonish objects around the room when my Apple Watch buzzed and I saw an urgent email come in. This is weirdly when "everything changed.”

I walked over to my laptop, and without removing the headset, sat down and started responding. I could see my computer screen and my god-awful-I-want-to-smash Macbook Air keyboard perfectly, even with the headset on. I replied, hit send, and looked up and the paint was still everywhere around me. The room was still covered in three-dimensional colored streams and weird little penguin characters.

That ability to interact with this immersive digital layer, simultaneously with the physical world, is going to change everything. There is going to be an entire augmented layer painted over our surroundings, and hopefully, if the right people and incentives are in place (a note on this at the very end), it will be incredible.

If those Apple glasses are for real, it might be closer than we realize (though, every time I try to use Apple's AR ruler, it tells me the lighting isn't right).

AirPods & Transhumanism

When I first got Apple's AirPods, I had a difficult time conveying what made them revolutionary. A common reaction to my excitement was "aren't they just bluetooth earphones?" 

The seamless pairing via the W1 chip was a big part of it. Suddenly, you could pop in your earphones, and even more impressively, switch between (Apple) devices without the dreaded spinning bluetooth icon. It just worked. But even more surprising was how the lightness of the design made them feel so natural. Yes, we all worried about losing them, but it was that light weight that made you barely recognize they were there.

That almost “natural” feeling is what make them the perfect first step towards an "always-on" augmented layer.

The idea of AirPods as a window into an audio-based augmented reality future might sound a bit futurism-y, but if you've ever taken a bike ride with them in (is that unsafe?) and have Maps active, the voice telling you to turn left without requiring an interruptive glance towards your phone, seamlessly integrated into your current action… you've already gotten the experience. Now imagine if there were audio experiences like this laid over more parts of the world.

This is even less far-fetched when I think about one of my favorite tourism experiences of all time, the audio walking tour. There used to be a company called Soundwalk (I wrote about them in 2009, and now cringe at my writing) that created these incredible guided walks.

At first they just gave you an mp3 with a map image to follow, but it evolved to leverage your GPS. "Turn around, do you see that statue? This is its history..." They even were very thoughtful about how the musical interludes integrated in your surroundings. Walking around the Lower East Side would trigger rap and salsa, walking around Paris would trigger a French crooner. Simple, purposeful things like this created wonderful experiences.

Side corporate history note: Soundwalk was bought by Andrew Mason (of Groupon fame) who mercy-killed it to Bose while pivoting the technology to a podcasting transcription service. Bose is using Soundwalk for their new Bose Frames - which also are a big proponent of this augmented audio thing.

If you want to dive deeper into augmented audio, here are two posts I strongly recommend:

One of the first posts that helped me think about this, from Jordan Cooper - Airpods As The Next Platform (And The Native Applications Therein)

Nick Pappageorge wrote on the topic a few months ago, and just gave a much-buzzed-about presentation, Audio & AirPods: the first taste of transhumanism. (I had to request the PDF from him, so maybe we can consider access to this report a special Margins-first release!)

In Closing

The past few years have instilled a sense of caution when it comes to revolutionary technology. That’s a good thing. But putting on the Magic Leap really slammed me with that sense of wonder that made my brain feel like it had become a VC on Twitter. I didn't just play augmented Angry Birds. I experienced the future of an always-on, augmented layer of information and experience, overlaid upon our existing physical world.

But, I think that will happen. And I'm kinda excited to see where it goes.

Closing Thought #1

My co-host Can mentioned that this could be my most “woah” Margins piece, as in gushing about technology without consideration of its impact.

I agree.

There are a ton of very serious questions and cautions that need to be considered if and when we head down this path. As I mentioned above, it’s all about having thoughtful people with the right incentives building this. Maybe that’s why Magic Leap, Apple and Microsoft all leading the way with hardware-selling, non-advertising business models makes me a bit more optimistic. And maybe I just wrote this to make myself hopeful in light of Zuck’s speech.  

Here, via Can, is a great look at what a dystopian AR future might look like:

Closing Thought #2

There are a lot of really intriguing subplots to this augmented world, whether visual or audio, or both.

In October 2017, SnapChat did a partnership with artist Jeff Koons to have a big AR dog in Central Park. Another artist, using an AR app other than SnapChat, “defacedKoons' dog. Was this illegal? My brain starts to hurt like it did while writing that Virtual Influencers and Fashion piece.

Image 2019-10-17 at 9.06.19 PM

Closing Thought #3

The single coolest VR experience I’ve had was at a place called HubNeo in New York's Lower East Side. It feels like some Bladerunner-y, underground spot, and the experience is meticulously built to make you feel like you're in a race car (to the point that your arms end up exhausted after a few races).