Getting an insider view of the goings-on at Magic Leap is hard to come by, but occasionally, the company lets one of its leaders offer a peek at what's happening at the famously secretive augmented reality startup. One of those opportunities came up a few days ago when Magic Leap's chief futurist and science fiction novelist, Neal Stephenson, sat for an extended interview at the MIT Media Lab.
Stephenson joined Magic Leap back in 2014, but since then, not much has been heard from the visionary author of masterworks like Snow Crash, an early virtual reality epic, and The Diamond Age, which envisions a future dominated by nanotechnology.
The conversation was held on-stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with two of the lab's staff, Ariel Ekblaw and Joe Paradiso, touching on a range of topics including space travel, the science fiction concepts explored in Stephenson's novels, and the state of technology in general. But his comments turned toward immersive computing once an audience member decided to ask him about his work at Magic Leap.
"I'm the chief futurist, which is a fairly ambiguous title," said Stephenson. "And what I said at the very beginning is that I didn't want to just be a navel-gazing kind of chief futurist, but I wanted to look for some way to actually do something. And for various reasons, it seems like making experiences is a good way to do that. So I'm thinking about ways to make experiences that one can have using this kind of hardware, and it turns out to be quite an interesting problem on a bunch of levels."
No, he didn't then whip out a Magic Leap One headset to show the audience how it works, but he did get a bit more specific than he has in the past in terms of what it's like to create content for the Magic Leap platform.
"The toolchain that is used by the game industry is the toolchain — game engines, and Maya, and Photoshop, and all of that stuff — you need to use. But you need to use it in a radically different way," said Stephenson. "None of the standard operating procedures of the game industry are directly transferable, because the interface is different, and you don't control the world. You can add [virtual] things to the real world, but you don't get to decide where the [real-world] chair is. The chair is where it is, and you have to deal with that, and that's hard. It's a really interesting challenge."
Aside from the rigors of working with engineers in both a technical and creative capacity, Stephenson also addressed the major shift a device like the Magic Leap One represents in a world already full of engaging content available on traditional platforms.
Neal Stephenson with Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, and the company's "chief game wizard," Graeme Devine, at an event in 2015.Image by Magic Leap/Twitter
"When new platforms come along, usually after a certain period of time, people figure out how to make money by generating content for those platforms," said Stephenson.
"In the case of movies, it turns out the way to make money is to make sequels to existing superhero franchises. So all the money goes to that. And it becomes difficult to make things that are not bad. Because that's how you make money. And the same is true of games and, for that matter, even books, and other kinds of media. But when a new platform comes along, there's a window of time during which nobody knows yet how to make money from it. During that window of time, you may have an opportunity to try a bunch of weird new stuff. So that's where we're at right now."
So far, we know that Magic Leap has comic book content in the works, as well as gaming and sports content. But based on Stephenson's past, incredibly ambitious written works, what finally emerges from his own mind via the Magic Leap One could manage to outdo all of the aforementioned projects in a way that truly illustrates the power of the company's platform.
We should know for sure in a few months. You can watch the entire hour and 26-minute interview via the video below.