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Intelligent Machines

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.

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