A lot of digital ink has been spilled heaping scorn on Magic Leap. Much of that media schadenfreude was due to what some believed were unmet promises versus some of the early hype around the product. Others just seemed to be rubbed the wrong way by the startup's Apple-esque secrecy and penchant for attempting to coin new terms and frameworks for things that were, mostly, already in play.
But amid the fog of all of the negative headlines, something was lost. Namely, a lot of the great work delivered 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 involves a young woman who returns to the home of her recently deceased grandmother. As she organizes and cleans up what is now an empty home, along with the family cat, we're taken through a series of stirring and emotional memories of happier times that helped form the woman's character. The project was written and directed by Jeremy Vanhoozer, who, along with the Magic Leap Studios team, was one of the many impacted by the company's mass layoffs earlier this year.
In recent years, I've spent a lot of time in VR and AR, and more frequently than even I expect, I'll run across something that changes how I see the mediums. But nothing has ever made me actually get a lump in my throat and wipe away tears — until now. See, I lost my own grandmother a few years ago. It wasn't a tragic or particularly unexpected passing, as she lived a very long and full life. Still, she was vibrant, funny, and engaged until the very end. I loved her. The loss was painful, and I still miss her.
A scene from Magic Leap Studios' The Last Light.Image by Adario Strange/Next Reality
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 many years. I thought I had fully processed her passing in every way possible. So it came as a surprise to find that, while trying out the experience, which was quietly released in August, I was genuinely touched in a way that I had never been before by an AR experience.
As I walked through the past of the character's life with her grandmother, moving around my apartment to examine various photos, sights, and sounds, the experience unexpectedly helped me mourn the passing of my own grandmother in an entirely new way. At one point, I had to stop, take the headset off for a few minutes, and compose myself. That's how heartfelt and sincerely told Vanhoozer's story is.
The Last Light.Image by Adario Strange/Next Reality
It turns out that Rony Abovitz's dream of giving the world a kind of "dream machine" to connect us to spatial storytelling that transcends the screen was indeed possible. Unfortunately, market forces aren't always fueled by dreams. Time and money caught up with the founder's aspirations, and the company was forced to pivot to enterprise business — something I have frequently suggested, especially in the face of robust competition from the likes of Microsoft's HoloLens 2 and companies like Vuzix.
Telling stories in immersive platforms is clearly a future worth pursuing, as the success of the Oculus Quest 2 is proving right now. But asking mainstream consumers to spend $2,300 on a brand new device (the Magic Leap 1) and a mostly unknown platform when many still balked (back in pre-Quest 2018) at the notion of laying out $600 for a headset (the first Oculus Rift) and a $1,000 computer to enjoy the many wonders of VR, well, that was, let's say, ambitious.
The Last Light. Image by Adario Strange/Next Reality
These are lessons Microsoft learned during its path to the similarly pricey HoloLens 2. The original HoloLens had its share of gaming and storytelling experiences, but ultimately Microsoft realized that its high-end, high price tag device was, for now, better aimed at enterprise customers who wouldn't wince as much at the cost of entry into the future of computing. From my vantage point, it seemed that Abovitz was betting that more creativity, cooler design, and a heavy dose of Apple-style mystique might allow Magic Leap to overcome these pricing and market fit hurdles.
The thing is, Apple didn't come by 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 under John Sculley, who took over after its founder, Steve Jobs was fired. Eventually, Jobs returned to the struggling company, newly sobered and with fresh eyes focused both on creativity as well as the bottom line.
Like the early Apple doubters, Magic Leap has amassed a healthy group of skeptics, many of whom declared the company dead after its mass layoffs this year. Frequently, critics seemed less invested in investigating the technical merits and/or shortcomings of the hardware and platform and appeared mostly just irritated that an upstart tried to frame itself as the Apple of immersive computing, with all the overwrought secrecy and, yes, the arrogance that such framing invites.
However, the reality is that Magic Leap is not "dead." The company secured a new investment of $350 million earlier this year and recently landed an experienced top tier technology executive, Peggy Johnson, to come aboard to confidently steer the company toward its enterprise future. In short order, Johnson has already dispensed with the company's previously annoying mystery approach and is on the front lines in the media explaining what, exactly, Magic Leap plans to accomplish in the enterprise sector.
What all this means is that the Plantation, Florida-based company is likely done with promoting itself as a kind of entertainment and gaming dream factory. The medical applications and factory training experiences that once were mentioned as bookends on Magic Leap's entertainment aspirations are now the main courses.
Of course, there are still a number of Magic Leap 1 developers out there who will continue to create games and storytelling experiences for the device, as exampled by a new wizarding experience unveiled in Japan earlier this week.
However, within the walls of Magic Leap, the mission is clear: enterprise first. And although many have cast their gaze away from the spatial computing company, assuming the worst, under the radar, Magic Leap is in the midst of a brand new and very aggressive hiring push for developer roles in medical technology, defense military, hardware and software engineering, and sales.
Will the company succeed? Well, it survived 2020, which in itself is an accomplishment, as many established and brand new startups have learned. What 2021 holds for the company will likely be up to the steady hand of Johnson and her team.
It's a bittersweet turn. Stories like The Last Light (which is still free and available on the Magic Leap World store) demonstrate, on a visceral level, the power of immersive computing. I'm saddened to see the end of Magic Leap Studios, as we knew it. But Magic Leap's shift to enterprise business is actually good news for all. It's not only the surest path toward survival and eventual profit for the company, it's also the kind of head-to-head competition Microsoft needs to keep the HoloLens platform on its toes.
And if, as an indirect result, the dreamers and storytellers first envisioned by Magic Leap's founder get to continue to create impassioned stories and games on the platform because it survives due to future enterprise success, well, that's a win, too.