Secretive augmented-reality start-up Magic Leap is partnering with online comic book publisher Madefire to deliver mixed reality comics to Magic Leap's devices when they launch.
The news sort of snuck out during a Friday night New York Comic-Con panel with a deliberately vague name: "The Future of Comics in New Realities."
The venue and its low-key, late-night setting isn't too surprising given Magic Leap's love of secrecy and mysterious history with the tech it has been quietly working on for more than half a decade. Despite having not launched – or really shown publicly – any form of its technology, Magic Leap continues to plug away at reinventing the way the world will one day view reality and is currently said to be valued more than $4 billion.
In an unusually public move this week, the executive creative director of Magic Leap and the senior vice president of Magic Leap Studios traveled to New York City to host a panel on the new partnership with Madefire and what that new partnership means for comics, story-telling and Magic Leap.
While the news didn’t include any new word on when Magic Leap will finally unveil or release its technology to the public, what form that tech will take, or how much it might cost, it does offer a sense that perhaps the company is preparing to pull back the veil, even a little bit. Or as one Magic Leap executive tells Glixel, "We're on the launchpad and there's a rocket."
Founded in 2011 by Ben Wolstenholme, Liam Sharp and Eugene Walden, Madefire's history with Magic Leap is almost as old as is the company.
Today, Madefire is the highest-rated app for viewing comics and a service that empowers creators to not just port their comics over to a digital space, but add motion and sound, but in 2012 the company was still establishing itself. An important stop on that journey was New York Comic-Con and, it would later turn out, that 2012 edition of New York Comic Con was important stopping point for Magic Leap, too.
The tech company was at the show that year, testing the waters for what would become its deep investment in mixed reality, but doing so from behind a smokescreen of colorful mascots, a comic book and an embarrassingly stark booth.
The idea, Andy Lanning, Magic Leap's executive creative director, tells Glixel was to see what people would want to experience in mixed reality and to see what people were thinking about that sort of technology.
So Magic Leap descended on New York Comic-Con without an office, product or anything to publish. They set up a booth, free of the show's ubiquitous bring-your-own carpet, lined the walls with posters and piled up T-shirts and a run of a one-off comic titled, Magic Leapers: Welcome to the Experience. They told the curious that they were working on a secret tech that would change the world and dazzled them with furry mascots and the offer of "space fudge."
During their time at the show, Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz happened to make made his way over to Madefire, drawn by both the company's approach to reimagining comics and its hunt for modern mythology.
Where Magic Leap was working to create a technology that hopes to seamlessly blend virtual reality and reality in a scene mixed into a person's real world, Madefire was working to give life to the static page of the comic book and discover new storytellers.
It helped that Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz was already a big fan of comics, and he even tapped the comic book industry for two key roles in his growing company: DC and Marvel writer and inker Andy Lanning and Marvel freelancer illustrator Ant Williams.
"Rony sat down with me one day, told me what Magic Leap was and what he wanted to do and I said, 'Why do you want a comic book guy?'" Lanning tells Glixel during a meeting at the Madefire booth prior to the Friday night panel. "And he said, 'You create worlds and characters and I want worlds and characters that people want to see.' People don't buy devices because of the graphics cards and electronics it has. They buy Nintendo because they want to play Mario Kart and Mario has a universe that lives beyond that device."
Abovitz was so taken with Madefire's vision that he invited Ben Wolstenholme, Madefire's co-founder and CEO, down to Florida to check out Magic Leap's technology first hand. The results lead to a partnership and Friday night's surprising announcement.
"We started hanging out with Rony in 2012 after we had launched," Wolstenholme says. "These guys were cooking up this idea for Magic Leap and we thought they were mildly insane."
Wolstenholme says he was cynical about the pitch, the idea of a sort of technology that could essentially weave created images into the fabric of reality.
"I was politely cynical; I am British," Wolstenholme says. "My co-founder Liam Sharp has known these guys for his whole career and he convinced me to make the trip to Florida to see Magic Leap."
It was 2013. When asked what he remembers of that first experience with Magic Leap, Wolstenholme says that the prototype rig, the device itself, was much bigger than he expected and that the experience was "already coming through."
The visuals were surprisingly solid, "unghosted" as he puts it. "My brain was rendering what I saw as real," he says. "It was just in the room. I was expecting a lot less, a ghosted image that would not feel very convincing, but it was very convincing."
The device, he said, was about the size of a double refrigerator and, to use it, Wolstenholme had to put his head inside the device.
Once he did, and he experienced what Magic Leap had to offer, Wolstenholme was immediately won over. "We've been working together ever since," he says.
Had a revelatory experience Friday with our prototype of a project with @wolstenholme— Rony Abovitz (@rabovitz) March 26, 2017
In March, Wolstenholme had a chance to return to Magic Leap's headquarters in Florida and show Abovitz what Madefire-powered comics look like inside Magic Leap.
The experience so impressed Abovitz that he later tweeted about how surprising it was. "There's something about hanging out with comics and being able to experience them at your own pace that is very hypnotic," Wolstenholme says.
To just about every journalist covering technology, virtual reality and augmented reality, Magic Leap sounds like it could a classic long con, an endless development-cycle powered by increasing large investments by the likes of Google and Alibaba. Even its official description – Magic Leap is said to use the same light fields that a person's brain uses to understand reality, which makes its own virtual creations indiscernible from the real world – seems like both magic and that believing in it requires a leap of faith.
Except, for the people who have quietly come and gone from Magic Leap's Florida offices, each impressed with tech demos they can’t talk about. Except for the people the secretive company has managed to hire. And there are a lot of them, close to 1,500 today, according to Ant Williams, senior vice president of Magic Leap Studios.
"We started with 12 people," Williams says. "Now we're heading toward 1,500, with about 800 in Florida and the rest in Santa Monica, Sunnyvale, Boston, Texas, Israel, the U.K. and Belgium."
The idea that 1,500 people – among them notable artists, developers, game makers, NASA physicists and holographers are all in on the con – seems unlikely.
The company simply won't show the tech publicly, even while acknowledging that simply explaining what it can do doesn't do Magic Leap any justice.
"David Gibbons says it's like describing sex: It's just not the same unless you're doing it. Or like eating ice cream, or both," says Wolstenholme.
So why not just show the tech off? It's a question I ask the gathering of two Leapers and Wolstenholme. Lanning says that seeing the tech in action is believing it, but that the company made a decision from the start to not show it off early, to wait.
"If we came out with something that had one really bad moment in it we would be slaughtered," he says. "You only get to reveal it once. You can't do that first impression again."
Williams adds that Magic Leap has been on such a long journey the company wants to make sure that when the technology is unveiled it will be fully representative of what the company is doing.
"We know where we are at Magic Leap and we have faith and confidence," he says. "We see people come in and see their reaction to it and we get nourished by that."
The New Reality
"Comic panels and comic pages float in the air in a true mixed reality," Lanning says. "Digital content maps itself to the environment and understands the environment and understands you. It's got depth, it's got parallax."
I haven't seen what Madefire-powered comics look like in Magic Leap's mixed reality. But everyone on Friday night's panel has. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing a half-empty room, describing the experience as "colorful," as "bright," as "crisp." They talked about how you can walk right up to speech bubbles and examine their crisp text.
The panels can float in the air, or be placed against a wall, no matter where they're located, they say, everything behind it is "obliterated," you can't see a thing through the light field art.
You can create environments connected to the world you're reading about. So a creator could make it rain in the room as you view floating panels showing a scene in a rainy world. You will be able walk up to a comic panel and then poke your head into it, looking inside the world of the comic.
Sound, too, is an incredibly important aspect of Magic Leap, they say. It features 3D stereoscopic audio that helps to immerse a reader into a scene.
Ultimately, the team hopes to one day not replace physical comics, but augment them. Imagine, Lanning says, sitting reading a comic and having these living panels rise up out of the printed page, surrounding you, pulling you into the imagined world.
Importantly, a key point of the Madefire adaptation of the technology is that it’s being constructed in a way that will make it very easy for creators to bring their creations into the world of Magic Leap through Madefire. It won't require game development or 3D modeling, just access to web-based software. Those creators who already have turned their comics into motion comics using the tech are already about 80-percent toward the work required to create an augmented reality comic.
And the importance of this sort of app, one used for creating augmented reality experiences out of art and the written word can’t be understated, they say.
Abovitz himself believes that apps like Madefire when paired with Magic Leap could create a paradigm shift.
"Something [Abovitz] once said is that this is potentially the printing press for mixed reality," Williams says. "This could open the door to so much."