Published on July 6th, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
Fading Light: The Story of Magic Leap’s Lost Mixed Reality Magnum Opus
The story of Magic Leap is a reflection of mixed reality technology overall as it has had a series of highs and lows, fits and starts, and periods of promise and peril. Adi Robertson of The Verge has written a sobering update on the company who was once the darling of many big tech giants and is now struggling to find an identity. It remains to be seen how the pandemic is going to affect the trajectory of AR/VR/MR/XR in enterprise, or even consumer, adoption but for one company, Magic Leap, it appears to have driven it into a valley from which it will be difficult to emerge.
Photo Source: James Bareham / The Verge
In April 2020, the weird and ambitious startup Magic Leap cut its workforce in half and delayed plans to take mixed reality glasses mainstream. The company had a wealth of ideas about how ordinary people might use its hardware, which overlays virtual images on reality. But after years of development, many were still prototypes or tech demos. Magic Leap was done with consumers for the near future, and it didn’t seem to be leaving much behind.
Inside the company, though, a few dozen developers were building what they describe as one of Magic Leap’s most exciting projects. It’s called The Last Light: an interactive story about a young woman dealing with the death of her grandmother, designed to show the storytelling potential of mixed reality. And crucially, its creators say it’s finished — but they aren’t sure if anyone will ever see it.
Magic Leap is one of the biggest, best-funded players in mixed (or augmented) reality, a blanket term for tech that blends the physical and virtual worlds. The Florida-based startup received more than $2 billion in funding and was known for recruiting high-profile talent to chase futuristic applications of its tech. One early hire was Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson, who, until recently, ran a research lab in Seattle. Another was Magic Leap “chief games wizard” Graeme Devine, co-creator of classic games like The 7th Guest. While much of Magic Leap’s work was secret, CEO Rony Abovitz touted concepts like a sophisticated virtual assistant named Mica and a city-sized holographic overlay called a Magicverse.
But alongside these grand sci-fi ideas, a now-gutted division was working on more immediately practical projects. The team, called Magic Leap Studios, designed apps for Magic Leap’s earliest headsets. The Last Light was its most ambitious project, meant to prove that first-generation mixed reality could still tell powerful stories — and to keep Magic Leap’s creative side alive as the company shifted to business customers. According to current and former employees, it was just weeks away from a successful debut. Then the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a crashing halt — and The Last Light, along with much of Magic Leap, crashed, too.
Studios began as a general-purpose content division. “Creative [design] was always part of the inception story and myth of Magic Leap,” says Anastasia Devana, the team’s former sound director. “That’s why Studios existed.” Early work was done under two of Magic Leap’s celebrity hires: Devine, who ran the studio, and the author Austin Grossman, who was apparently helping design a mixed reality dungeon-crawler called Bitforce. But Bitforce was discontinued and Devine left Florida within months, stepping back from day-to-day operations.
The ultimate result, according to Studios members, was positive. The roughly 70-person team shifted toward more manageable, practical, and collaborative projects — primarily Create, an art tool that shipped on the Magic Leap One in 2018. “There were always egos, but not the kind of egos that will collapse the whole project because someone’s vision is so grandiose and they just want people to get it done,” says lead artist Mouhsine Adnani.
After Create, Studios wanted to build something more ambitious. It settled on a multiplayer puzzle game codenamed “Gemini,” which one studio member compared to the hit indie game Monument Valley. But the multiplayer component felt too complicated, and the puzzles never clicked. Neither delivered what some team members really wanted: a narrative experience that would touch people who didn’t care about Magic Leap.
Narrative was part of Magic Leap’s DNA from the beginning. Abovitz originally founded the company not as a hardware startup, but as a home for a sweeping transmedia fantasy epic. But Studios’ past attempts hadn’t worked out. “Story was always this golden chalice we could never quite grab,” says lead producer Bryan Jury. The more they looked at Gemini, though, the less compelling its gameplay seemed. Then, creative head Jeremy Vanhoozer brought in a short story about a girl and her grandmother, and The Last Light was born.