Reality as we perceive it is being upgraded. First through our smartphone cameras, to our car windscreens and right in front of our own eyes - the digital and the actual are merging. Magic Leap One aims to be at the front of the reality revolution, but it can't do it alone. We tried out the latest app for the pioneering MR glasses and talked with the developers about what it means for our augmented future.
We had our first hands-on with the Magic Leap One last year. We were impressed with the capabilities of the holographic glasses and spoke with Nomtek, a digital media company with the distinction of being the only European developers for Magic Leap One. As delightful as the device is as a novelty, it's up to developers and content creators to really make the magic happen. To that end, we reunited with Nomtek to try out their first app for Magic Leap: B-all one.
One small bounce for Magic Leap
In our previous encounter with Magic Leap, I placed digital furniture around the room and blasted robots in Dr. Grordborts Invaders. Next to these, Nomtek's B-All One seems almost minimalist. After placing on the goggles and scanning the room, my reality is augmented with two simple digital objects - a holographic racquet in my right hand, and a ball hovering in front, waiting to drop into a serve. And then, it's game on.
Check out B-all One in action in the following video, courtesy of Nomtek:
Thanks to B-All One, I can finally realize my dream of playing indoor squash without smashing the ornaments and furniture - hit the ball and it bounces off the real life walls around you. Depending on the difficulty, it allows several floor bounces before a game over or just one, upon which a scoreboard pops up.
I'll confess to you readers, I performed abysmally in the scores but had immense fun seeing just what I could make the digital ball bounce off. Walls? Check? Shelves? Check. Tables and chairs? Check. Potted plants? Eh...not so much.
There are some frustrating parts to the game that highlight Magic Leap's limitations - hit the ball outside of your field of view and its invisible bounces still count against you. Without haptic feedback it's difficult to judge the force and speed of your swings. But the 'magic', that interaction of digital and real objects, was just as fascinating as last time, if not more so...after all, I couldn't throw the robot invaders over a real life chair before.
From simple games to an AR cloud
B-all One stands up as a fun diversion, but it's still fairly limited, and I'm not sure just how long the enchantment of seeing the digital ball bounce off physical things would really last after repeat play. As with almost everything on the Magic Leap right now, it serves more as a showcase of the technology's capabilities - not only the hardware but also software - the game is the first app made natively in Magic Leap's LuminOS SDK. Nomtek are keen to compare B-all One to Pong ... another simple ball game, that despite its basic nature, was the herald of great things to come in the world of computing.
"We wanted to push the barriers of the device by creating a fast-moving dynamic environment, and prove that you can actually roll out products pretty fast - you don't need to spend 2 or 3 years". Piotr was proud to state that it took Nomtek just under 4 months to bring B-all One from the idea to an internal beta.
Piotr stresses that the Magic Leap app store is still in its early stages, but that "our mission was to provide enough goodness, enough gameplay so that the critical mass of fun is there." Compared to previous games on Magic Leap, this is the most physically demanding and offers the widest range of movement - you can tire yourself out playing B-all One, making it an effective virtual sport.
"How I see the future of mixed reality is that all the devices will blend together to create a multiplayer experience. What drives the usefulness of all these devices is connection, bringing people together. The AR cloud brings the possibility of having a persistent experience across multiple devices in the same locations, whether you're playing more in the real, or more virtually. Together with the higher download speeds enabled by 5G networks, this will be the future of augmented reality."
Rather limited forms of AR clouds already exist - for example, Pokemon Go uses one. But these are relatively closed ecosystems accessible in limited ways. I was skeptical about whether the AR developers of the world would be so keen to embrace a shared virtual world without borders...after all, it means giving up some control, and everyone wants an exclusive to offer consumers. But Piotr is convinced that even the big players have nothing to gain from gatekeeping.
"Fragmentation in the AR/mixed reality space is not serving anyone"
"Fragmentation in the AR/mixed reality space is not serving anyone. If you take the Magic Leap, it certainly is magic, and entertaining, but it has a long way to go before competing with the smartphone for mass adoption."
The shared persistent experience is already possible. The latest early beta of LuminOS SDK allows for two users with Magic Leap to share the AR environment. It's still in early stage but will be crucial for developing business viability - a persistent ecosystem for a variety of devices. In the future, you'll be able to play B-all One with your friend many miles away, possibly even with a realistic 3D meshed avatar representing them - and the potential data protection nightmare that represents.
"If you have all these meshes in one place, accessible by multiple devices, then the Internet 3D, or Internet of places will be really taking shape. Whether you have a smartphone, or Magic Leap, Hololens or other device, you'll be able to see not just your interactions in this place, but also those of other people, in the present or in the past. This is how I see the future, and what we're working towards at Nomtek. I'm not talking about gaming, but a multi-user, collaborative environment. The driver of this is the persistence of the experience."
Piotr envisions one's level of immersion into the AR cloud to be dependent on your device - those with smartphones can look on through their cameras as passive observers of an augmented environment that Magic Leap users can actually manipulate and change as active users. He also sees smartphone-based AR moving away from just projecting onto surfaces, but using more 3D meshes and exploring 'occlusion' - being able to hide a real object behind a digital one. In this way, smartphones and advanced AR devices like Magic Leap inch ever closer to convergence and being able to navigate a shared AR cloud.
The next evolution from the smartphone?
This connectivity between Magic Leap style AR/MR (Piotr uses both terms often, perhaps its time to use the term XR more often for these wide-spectrum devices) and smartphones makes sense when you consider that Nomtek has years of experience developing for mobile apps before XR. In his presentation to a diverse audience of industry insiders and interested neophytes, he compares the development of XR, or spatial computing, to the touchscreen revolution, when we ditched phone buttons on our way into the smartphone era. The next step - people coming together to communicate and create in this Internet of places.
"Don't forget about smartphones. Smartphones still have super powers."
In another comparison with the world of smartphone apps, Piotr cited the top apps in the iOS App Store in 2008, which included such luminaries as Tap Tap Revenge and Labyrinth Lite edition... quick games and lightweight utility apps experimenting with smartphone capabilities - for example, Labyrinth Lite Edition allowed you to guide a ball into a hole by tilting your smartphone. Contrast this to the top 5 apps nowadays - Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat...all social apps, networked and relying heavily on user-generated content.
This is how Piotr sees the evolution of XR...from single player gimmick experiments to multi-user experiences defined by the network effect...each new user bringing more value to the app, leading to exponential growth that is attractive to users and businesses alike. "Don't forget about smartphones. Smartphones still have super powers. If you want to be successful in XR, you should built something that can benefit from both the mass adoption of smartphones, and the extra power of Magic Leap too".
Do you believe in magic?
As before, experiencing the capabilities of the Magic Leap doesn't fail to provoke wonder, but you may have also picked up on a strong idealistic component of the idea of the AR cloud. And it's not just waiting for 5G connectivity. Who's going to have the surveillance power to mesh the world in such detail? Will we allow information to be gathered not just about the things we search for and our pictures, but 3D meshes of our bodies and our movements?
Nonetheless, when you look back at the evolution of the smartphone in the last decade, it's not hard to imagine that a lot can change. In the space of ten years, the fantastic can become normal. For now, we're still in the quirky, experimental phase of XR, and if you remember the similar phase of smartphones and the Internet itself, that's still a interesting place to be.
Are you interested in the development of Magic Leap? What do you think the future of XR will look like? Let us know in the comments.