Skip to Content

EmTech Digital: Magic Leap Plans to Open Its Virtual World to Developers

A company that’s developing impressive “mixed reality” technology wants to open up the platform to creative minds.

In 1992, the novel Snow Crash introduced to science fiction readers the idea of seamlessly merging digital reality with the real world, something the author, Neal Stephenson, dubbed the “metaverse.”

Jason Pontin, Rony Abovitz, Graeme Devine, and Neal Stephenson

Twenty-odd years later, Stephenson’s science-fictional vision is on the verge of becoming real. A startup called Magic Leap, for which Stephenson now serves as a “chief futurist,” is developing a headset that makes it possible to redraw reality with staggering realism (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Magic Leap”).

Speaking at MIT Technology Review’s Emtech Digital in San Francisco Tuesday, Magic Leap’s CEO, Rony Abovitz, its chief creative officer, Graeme Devine (a well-respected veteran of the computer games industry), and Stephenson discussed efforts to perfect the technology—and to figure out how it might be used.

To that end, Devine revealed that Magic Leap plans to release a software development kit (SDK) for outside developers, designers, and storytellers to experiment with. “You can go to our website and sign up under our developer tab, and we’ll soon be telling you a lot more about that,” he said. “I cannot wait. The awesome stuff is not going to come from us, it’s going to come from everyone out there.”

Although Devine wouldn’t disclose when the SDK would be released, he explained that it would be compatible with the popular game development engines Unity and Unreal.

“We’re about having a completely open platform for every app developer, artist, writer, and filmmaker,” Abovitz said. “We’re going to open it up for the world.”

Although few people have been able to try Magic Leap’s technology, there is considerable excitement about its potential. In contrast to stereoscopic 3-D virtual reality systems such as Oculus Rift, which immerse a person in a completely virtual world, Magic Leap’s hardware can superimpose virtual objects or characters on the real world with impressive realism (demos have involved monsters and robots). The technology involves re-creating patterns produced when light bounces off objects using a tiny projector aimed at a person’s eyes.

Stephenson explained that his role at Magic Leap involved thinking up ways that the technology might be used to tell stories. “I’m mostly thinking about content,” he said. “We don’t know necessarily how to make content that’s going to work on this. You can’t just take an existing video game. You can’t just take that 3-D world and dump it into a medium like this.”

Virtual reality may appear first in computer games, but it’s still unclear how to make best use of the technology. “If anyone says I know what the killer app is, they’re probably wrong,” Stephenson added. “I think they’re sincere, but they’re wrong.”

And when asked how Magic Leap’s technology compares to the metaverse described in his dystopian work of fiction, Stephenson gave a hint that it might not be quite so bleak. “It looks a lot more cheerful,” he said.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.