The Imaginative Universal

Studies in Virtual Phenomenology -- @jamesashley

Why Magic Leap is Important

October 27
by James Ashley 27. October 2014 13:57

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This past weekend a neighbor invited our entire subdivision to celebrate an Indian holiday called Diwali with them – The Festival of Lights. Like many traditions that immigrant families carry to the New World in their luggage, it had become an amalgamation of old and new. The hosts and other Indians from the neighborhood wore traditional South-East Asian formalwear. I was painfully underdressed in an old oxford, chinos and flip-flops. Others came in the formalwear of their native countries. Some just put on jackets and ties. We organized this Diwali as a pot-luck and had an interesting mix of biryanis, spaghetti, enchiladas, pancakes with syrup, borscht, tomato korma, Vietnamese spring rolls and puri.

The most important part of the celebration was the lighting of fireworks. For about two solid hour, children ran through a smoky cul-de-sac waving sparklers while firecrackers went off around them. Towards the end of this celebration, one of our hosts pulled out her iPhone in order to Facetime with her father in India and show him the children playing in the background just as they would have back home, forming a line of continuity between continents using a 1500 year old ritual and an international cellular system. Diwali is called the Festival of Lights, according to Wikipedia, because it celebrates the spiritual victory of light over darkness and ignorance.

When I got home I did some quick calculations. In order to get to that Apple moment our host had with her father – we no longer have Hallmark moments but only Apple moments today – took approximately seven years. This is the amount of time it takes for a technology to seem fantastic and impractical – because we don’t believe it can be done and can’t imagine how we would use it in everyday life if it was – to having it be unexceptional.

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Video conferencing has been a staple of science fiction for ages, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek. It was only in 2010, however, that Apple announced the FaceTime app making it generally available to anyone who could afford an iPhone. I’m basing the seven years from fantasy to facticity, though, on length of time since the initial release of the iPhone in 2007.

Magic Leap, the digital reality technology that has just received half a billion dollars of funding from companies like Google, is important because it points the way to what can happen in the next seven years. I will paint a picture for you of what a world with this kind of digital reality technology will look like and it’s perfectly okay if you feel it is too out there. In fact, if you end up thinking what I’m describing is plausible, then I haven’t done a good enough job of portraying that future.

Magic Leap is creating a wearable product which may or may not be called Dragonstone glasses and which may or may not be a combination of light field technology – like that used in the Lytro camera – and depth detection – like the Kinect sensor. They are very secretive about what they are doing exactly. When Leap Magic CEO Rony Abovitz talks about his product, however, he uses code to indicate what it is and what it isn’t.

In an interview with David Lidsky, Abovitz let slip that Dragonstone is “not holography, it's not stereoscopic 3-D. You don't need a giant robot to hold it over your head, you don't need to be at home to use it. It's not made from off-the-shelf parts. It's not a cellphone in a View-Master.” At first reading, this seems like a quick swipe at Oculus Rift, the non-mobile, stereoscopic virtual reality solution built from consumer parts by Oculus VR and, secondarily, Samsung Gear VR, the mobile add-on to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 that turns it into a virtual reality device with stereoscopic audio. Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s apparent that his grand sweep of dismissal takes in a long list of digital reality plays over the years.

Let’s start with holography.

[in progress ….]

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Virtual Reality