The man whose novel helped inspire Second Life takes a Magic Leap

It has been announced that science-fiction author Neal Stephenson has become the latest high-profile individual to join the ranks of Magic Leap, the still-mysterious company that seems to be doing something highly innovative with augmented reality – and perhaps virtual reality as well.

Stephenson, who wrote Snow Crash, the novel which first coined the term “metaverse” and is often referred to as one of the influences behind the development of Second Life, has accepted the position of “Chief Futurist” at Magic Leap, in news being broken by the likes of Wired and The Verge.

Neal Stephenson, Magic Leap's new
Neal Stephenson, Magic Leap’s new “Chief Futurist” (image: Bob Lee via Flickr)

Writing in a blog post for Magic Leap, Stephenson states he had been approached by the company months ago – and in a rather unique way:

A few months ago, two Irishmen, a Scot, and an American appeared on my doorstep with Orcrist, aka “Goblin-cleaver,” the ancient sword forged during the First Age of Middle Earth by the High Elves of Gondolin, later retrieved from a troll hoard by Thorin Oakenshield. It’s not every day that someone turns up at your house bearing a mythic sword, and so I did what anyone who has read a lot of fantasy novels would: I let them in and gave them beer. True to form, they invited me on a quest and asked me to sign a contract (well, an NDA actually).

The use of Orcrist in the offer is cleverly symbolic: one of the Board of Directors of Magic Leap is Sir Richard Taylor, founder and head of WETA Workshop, the company behind the models, costumes and special effects seen in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies directed by Peter Jackson.

Precisely what Magic Leap is developing is something of a mystery, although as I’ve previously reported in these pages, what has been shown to the likes of Google, Legendary Pictures, Andreessen Horowitz and others led them to invest some $542 million into the company in October – and that on top of $50 million of investment at the start of the year.

What little is known about Magic Leap is that it is currently working on what it calls “cinematic reality”, which uses a headset which may eventually look something like a pair of sunglasses to overlay anything the wearer sees in the real world with 3D digital images that move and respond to the wearer’s own head an eye movements, and which appear to “interact” with the physical world around the wearer.

You'll believe a whale can fly - or that's perhaps Magic Leap's hope (among more practical things)
You’ll believe a whale can fly – or that’s perhaps Magic Leap’s hope (among more practical things)

Recently, Sean Hollister over at Gizmodo followed the lead set by Tom Simonite, a bureau chief at MIT Technology Review, in tracing down patents filed by Magic Leap in an attempt to find out more about what the company may actually be producing. As I again reported, their findings make fascinating reading for anyone interested in emerging AR and VR technologies – and in the history of Magic Leap, which up until the huge investment by Google et al, had been quietly flying under the radar for a number of years.

In that same report, I also covered the fact that what might be on of Magic Leap’s first major public demonstrations could be at the Manchester International Festival here in the UK in July 2015.

The Age of Starlight is a new film bringing together Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald, the visual effects team behind the 2013 George Clooney / Sandra Bullock blockbuster Gravity and science pundit and physicist Professor Brian Cox. The film will tell the story of the cosmos around us utilising Magic Leap technology, allowing audiences of up to 50 people at a time witness – and be immersed in – the unfolding majesty and mystery of the universe in what is billed as being a transformative, emotional experience.

The Age of Starlight: an immersive, transformative film using Magic Leap technology will be shown at the Manchester International Festival in the UK in 2015
The Age of Starlight: an immersive, transformative film using Magic Leap technology will be shown at the Manchester International Festival in the UK in 2015

It is apparently this transformative power within the Magic Leap technology that has attracted Neal Stephenson. Again, on the Magic Leap blog he states:

Here’s where you’re probably expecting the sales pitch about how mind-blowingly awesome the demo was. But it’s a little more interesting than that. Yes, I saw something on that optical table I had never seen before–something that only Magic Leap, as far as I know, is capable of doing. And it was pretty cool. But what fascinated me wasn’t what Magic Leap had done but rather what it was about to start doing.

Magic Leap is mustering an arsenal of techniques–some tried and true, others unbelievably advanced–to produce a synthesized light field that falls upon the retina in the same way as light reflected from real objects in your environment. Depth perception, in this system, isn’t just a trick played on the brain by showing it two slightly different images.

Magic Leap is not exclusively about games. It’s also going to be a great tool for readers, learners, scientists, and artists … What applies to games applies as well to other things of interest, such as making the world safe for books, doing new things with science and math visualization, and simply creating art for art’s sake.

We still don’t know precisely what Magic Leap will present or how it will work, and truth be told, there is an awful lot of hype and hyperbole surrounding the emerging new market for AR and VR it is hard at times to separate fact from fiction. But when the likes of Sir Richard Taylor and Thomas Tull (CEO of Legendary Pictures) pour their own money into a project, and it attracts names such as Brian Cox, Kevin MacDonald and now Neal Stephenson – you have to suspect something very special might well be sitting just over the horizon.

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7 thoughts on “The man whose novel helped inspire Second Life takes a Magic Leap

  1. Oh, I admit — my curiosity is piqued 🙂

    Although lately all these super-secret, mind-blowing, overhyped projects tended to become little more than… magic dust on the media. Look at what happened with Google Glass. At least Oculus Rift has prototypes that people can actually buy and use.

    So… we’ll see.

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    1. What intrigues me is the fact that up until October, Magic Leap had been flying along quite quietly under the radar, going about its business, pulling things together for a number of years. The names lined-up behind some of the tech for which patients have been filed are pretty impressive as well (I followed Sean Hollister’s digging around!). Plus, whatever prototypes they do have seem to be enough to floor some extremely astute people and hardened journalists from the likes of New York Times.

      It’ll be interesting to see just what The Age of Starlight brings in July – particularly if nothing else has surfaced before then. I’ll certainly be making a trip up to Manchester for a look or two!

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    1. Normally I’m very tight on links, but you’re right: this time I did miss specifically linking to the Magic Leap home page itself – although there already was a link to Neal Stephenson’s Magic Leap blog post (directly above the quote taken from the post).

      The oversight has now been corrected.

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