Magic Leap's mysterious augmented reality tech promises to "bring magic back into the world." And now Neal Stephenson, who imagined the virtual Metaverse in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, has joined the company. He tells io9 why this technology may "demand a new way of thinking."
Top image via Magic Leap website
Magic Leap had a pretty impressive pedigree, even before the company raised $542 million from Google, among others. Weta Workshop's co-founder and other top creatives have been involved since the beginning. And this incredibly detailed Gizmodo story about everything we know about Magic Leap lists a ton of top creatives who are on board the company.
Stephenson was just announced as the Chief Futurist of Magic Leap. When we had the opportunity to talk to him yesterday, we were keen to find out exactly what that job title means — and just why Stephenson sees Magic Leap's method of placing a digital artifact into physical space as revolutionary.
So what does Magic Leap's system actually do? Stephenson says it's not strictly speaking "virtual reality," but rather something virtual that's integrated with the real world:
It's a different kind of system in which you can see your [physical] surroundings, as well as what's being generated by the hardware. And that, to me, opens up a lot of creative possibilities that I'm really just beginning to think about. When you can overlay rendered imagery on top of the real world, it makes it possible to get up, to move around freely. And I think it's going to demand a new way of thinking about what a game is [and] what content is, and that is something I look forward to being involved in.
The people involved with making games have been "ingenious in exploring just about everything you can do while sitting on your butt staring at a rectangle, with a pad in your hands," says Stephenson.
"Triple-A games that are out there are incredibly highly tuned and optimized to do what they do," he adds. So if he were "the kind of person who makes those games for a living, I might be asking myself, 'What's next? What can I do if the player has the option to stand up and walk around? What would I do if the world of the game was one that merged with, or overlaid on, the real world?'"
Stephenson says he was attracted to the particular mix of talents involved with this particular venture. Magic Leap includes "sophisticated physicists" and biologists, who are experts on optics as well as "the biology and neurology of the human perceptual system" — allowing them to project sophisticated 3D images, that move in a realistic fashion in real space. And these scientists are working with writers, film-makers and musicians, people who know about storytelling.
"That's just a combination unlike anything else that I've ever seen," says Stephenson.
Stephenson is talking to us from New Zealand, where he's on-site with Weta as part of his new role. The airline lost his luggage, so he's had to "raid the swag store around the corner," and is planning on clothing himself entirely in "Tolkien-themed T-shirts, for an indefinite period."
Not a "brain on a stick"
So what's a "Chief Futurist," and what does that job involve? Stephenson says this could be an "abstract brain-on-a-stick job." But "if you're not actually doing practical things with the technology and engaging with the engineers and understanding the science, then it's impossible to futurize. So I've been telling Rony [Abovitz] and the other people involved with Magic Leap from the very beginning that I wanted to have direct involvement in actually using this hardware as a creative platform."
"I feel like there's a lot of work for people like me to do" to bring about a future where augmented reality becomes commonplace, says Stephenson. "The way it goes in any content creation is you can get the most talented people in the world, kind of coming up with their best ideas, and you never know what's going to catch on. That's what makes publishing an interesting business, [and] it accounts for a lot of the way the movie industry and the game industry work." So it's important to create a system where as many people as possible have access to the technology and can try things. Stephenson says he'll just be one of the people playing around with this gear.
"I like working with nerds," says Stephenson. "I've been doing that, one way or another, for at least 15 years now." And he hopes, if his ideas are found worthy, he'd like to implement them, but "I've been doing this long enough to know that most of the projects you start don't get greenlit."
Could the rise of pervasive augmented reality worsen the digital divide, by creating a world where wealthier people see a vastly different version of reality than poor people? Stephenson says it'll be more like cellphones. Nowadays, a few people are too poor to own cellphones, but still, "cellphones have achieved a huge reach, economically and geographically." They've gone from a status symbol to being "widely disseminated."
Will Seveneves have a digital component?
Given Stephenson's interest in games and non-traditional methods of storytelling, will his next novel Sevenves (due out in May) have a digital component? Like an app, or some other online enhancement?
"I would love to see something like that happen," says Stephenson. "It's expensive," he laughs. "Even simple graphics are expensive. I'm certainly exploring some ways of producing some assets. We've talked about games. It's too late now to make one fast enough. But I think some concept art, illustrations, might be achievable in the time we've got."
And Stephenson says despite all his experimentation with games and the collaborative Mongoliad book series published through Amazon, he's still a huge fan of books and traditional publishing. "I'm totally satisfied with the book. I think it's just about the most advanced technology we've got. I don't think it could get much better, and I don't think it needs to get much better. I'd like to make the world safe for books, in a way that the people who work in that industry — writers, booksellers and so forth — can get paid what they're worth."
And the experimentation that Stephenson has been doing in the past few years has been "me trying to find ways to make that happen." He adds, "I feel like I've learned a lot in the last five years or so," including "how much the traditional publishing industry gets right." And he hopes that "among the things I can work on at Magic Leap will be some projects that will make readers of plain old traditional paper books happy, without messing with books the way they are."
Everything's changed since Snow Crash
"Since I wrote Snow Crash, computer graphics — which were then somewhat exotic and hard to do and expensive — have become an industry," says Stephenson. "It used to be remarkable to see a movie that had CGI, and now it would be remarkable to see a movie that didn't have any CGI. And the games industry has grown to eclipse the movie industry, and that's an industry that's built entirely on CGI." The result is a "sophisticated audience" who understand computer imagery and are "avid consumers of that kind of content."
"As depicted in Snow Crash, the Metaverse is sort of like, 'What if you took cable TV and turned it into an interactive 3D experience?' So that was fine, as a plot device in a book 25 years ago," says Stephenson. "But now we've got an opportunity to make it more than that."