Is this how disruption on a vast scale starts? I’ve condensed a long article by Kevin Kelly in Wired magazine that’s about a small tech company in Florida that has people talking. And lots of those talking about it are putting their money where their mouths are. It might be the next leap forward since the internet. If the internet is how we access information, then the new forms of virtual reality will be how we experience information.
Amid low gray cubicles in a generic office in a suburb near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a drone from an alien planet hovers in front of me. It’s steampunk-cute and minutely detailed. I can walk around it and examine it from any angle, and bring my face to within inches of it to inspect its tiny details, like the swirls where the metal was “milled.” Reaching out, I can move it around. When I step back to view it from afar, it looks as real as the lamps and computer monitors around it.
But the little drone isn’t real. I’m seeing all this through a synthetic-reality headset. Intellectually, I know the drone is an elaborate simulation, but as far as my eyes are concerned it’s really there in that ordinary office. It’s a virtual object, but there’s no evidence of pixels or digital artifacts in its three-dimensional fullness. If I reposition my head, I can get line up the virtual drone in front of an office lamp and perceive that it’s faintly transparent, but that hint does not impede the strong sense that it’s present.
With this prototype headset, created by the ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone and its reality is stronger than I thought possible. Virtual reality overlaid on the real world in this manner is called mixed reality, or MR. The goggles are semitransparent, allowing you to see your actual surroundings. MR is more difficult to achieve than the classic fully immersive virtual reality, or VR, where all you see are synthetic images. In many ways MR is the more powerful of the two technologies.
Magic Leap is not the only company creating mixed-reality technology, but right now the quality of its virtual visions exceeds all others. So, the money is pouring into this Florida office park. Google was one of the first to invest. To date, investors have funneled $1.4 billion into it.
Aside from potential investors and advisers, few people have been allowed to see the gear in action, and the combination of funding and mystery has fueled rampant curiosity. But to really understand what’s happening at Magic Leap, you need to also understand the tidal wave surging through the entire tech industry. All the major players—Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung—have whole groups dedicated to artificial reality.
Our lives and work now run on the “internet of information.” But artificial reality is an “internet of experiences.” What you share in VR or MR gear is an experience. The recurring discovery I made in each virtual world I entered was that although every one of these environments was fake, the experiences I had in them were genuine. Even if you’ve never tried virtual reality, you probably possess a vivid expectation of what it will be like. It’s the Matrix, a reality of so convincing that you can’t tell if it’s fake.
VR does two important things: One, it generates an intense and convincing sense of what is generally called “presence.” Virtual landscapes, virtual objects, and virtual characters seem to be there—a perception that is not so much a visual illusion as a gut feeling. That’s magical. But the second thing it does is more important. The technology forces you to be present in a way flatscreens don’t so that you gain authentic experiences, as authentic feeling as in real life. People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.
Experience is the new currency in VR and MR. Technologies like Magic Leap’s will enable us to generate, transmit, quantify, refine, personalize, magnify, discover, share, reshare, and overshare experiences. This shift from the creation, transmission, and consumption of information to the creation, transmission, and consumption of experience defines this new platform.
With a VR platform we’ll create a Wikipedia of experiences, potentially available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Travel experiences like feeling terror at the edge of an erupting volcano, or wonder at a walking tour of the pyramids that were once the luxury of the rich (like books in the old days), will be accessible to anyone with a VR rig. There’ll be experiences to be shared: marching with protesters in Iran; dancing with revelers in Malawi; how about switching genders? Or experiences no humans have had: exploring Mars; living as a lobster; experiencing a close-up of your own beating heart, live. VR talks to our subconscious mind like no other media
The Magic Leap advantage is that pixels disappear. Other VR displays have a faint “screen door” effect from a visible grid of pixels. Magic Leap’s virtual images are smooth and incredibly realistic. Month by month, resolution increases, the frame rate jumps, the dynamic range deepens, and the color is more real.
Soon, Magic Leap will abandon desktop screens altogether in favor of mixed-reality glasses, replacing monitors within a year.
It’s no great leap to imagine such glasses also replacing the small screens we all keep in our pockets. In other words, this is a technology that can simultaneously upend desktop PCs, laptops, and phones.
No wonder everyone is paying attention.