On the afternoon of July 8, Beijing time, on April 2020, Magic Leap, a mysterious and ambitious start-up company, announced 50% layoffs and postponed plans to commercialize mixed reality glasses products. The products developed by the company can superimpose virtual images in the real world. At the same time, it also makes many bold and avant-garde ideas for the public on how to use these products. But after so many years of development, many products are still just a prototype or test version.
In the near future, the fate between Magic Lap and consumers seems to be over.
However, within the company, there are still dozens of developers developing a product that they think is one of Magic Leap’s best products. This product is called “the Last Light”, an interactive story about a young girl dealing with her grandmother’s funeral, aiming to show the potential of mixed reality in the direction of storytelling. However, the crux of the problem is that the creators say that the product has been completed, but they do not know whether it will have a chance to meet the masses.
The birth of the last light
Magic Leap is one of the largest and most funded companies in the field of mixed (or enhanced) reality. The so-called mixed reality refers to a series of technologies that integrate the virtual world into the real world. The Florida-based startup has so far received more than $2 billion in financing, recruiting high-profile talents to explore future applications for its technology. One of the company’s early employees included Neal Stephenson, author of Avalanche, who recently ran a research lab in Seattle. Another big player is the company’s “chief game expert” Graeme Devine, a co-creator of classic games such as “the seventh visitor. Although most of Magic Leap’s work is hidden deep, the company’s chief executive, Rony Abovitz, shows off some concepts from time to time, for example, the advanced virtual assistant called “Mica” and the city scale hologram called “Magicverse.
In addition to these grand science fiction ideas, a department that is slightly lost now is starting to develop more practical projects. This team is called “Magic Leap Studios” and once designed applications for the first head-mounted devices launched by Magic Leap. “The Last Light” is the most anticipated project of this team, the aim is to prove that the first generation of mixed reality technology can also be used to tell touching stories-and to keep Magic Leap’s creativity alive while the company is gradually leaning towards enterprise users. On-the-job and off-the-job employees said that as long as you give a few more weeks, the product can successfully ask the market. However, the new Crown virus pandemic disrupted the global pace-and also brought “The Last Light” and Magic Leap to a collapse.
At first, the studio was just a general content department. “Creative design has always been part of the story and myth of Magic Leap’s creation,” said Anastasia Devana, the team’s former sound director, “This is why the studio exists.” The team’s early work was completed under two big players found by Magic Leap. Tiwana, in charge of managing the team; Writer Austin Grossman, assisted in designing the mixed reality version of the maze adventure “Bitforce”. But Bitforce died in the middle, and Tiwana also left Florida within a few months to withdraw from daily operations.
Team members said that the final result was relatively positive. The team of about 70 people turned to develop a more manageable, practical and collaborative project-mainly “Create”, an artistic tool released on Magic Leap One in 2018. “Conceit has always existed, but it is not the conceit that makes the whole project collapse, because someone’s vision is so grand that they just want someone to realize it,” chief artist Mouhsine Adani said.
After “Create”, the studio hopes to develop something higher and larger. The team finally decided to make a multiplayer puzzle game, code-named “Gemini”. A studio member said that this is a game similar to the super popular independent game “Monument Valley. But the multiplayer part feels too complicated and the mystery has never been solved. Moreover, the game has never reached the effect that some team members really expect: a narrative experience that can impress those users who don’t care much about Magic Leap.
The narrative is rooted in Magic Leap’s DNA from the beginning. Abowitz’s original intention is not only to define the company as a hardware start-up company, but also to be the invincible home of cross-media fantasy epic. But the studio’s previous attempts ended in failure. “The story seems to be the golden Holy Grail we will never catch,” said Chief Producer Bryan Jury. The more they look at “Gemini”, the more they feel that the game is not attractive. Then, Jeremy Vanhoozer, the creative director, came up with a little story about girls and grandmothers, and then “The Last Light” was born.
Artistic experience of mixed reality
the main character of “The Last Light” is a young girl named Keya. After Kaia’s grandmother died, Kaia returned to her hometown and started a new life. When she was exploring her childhood home and the world around her, the old memory and the new relationship slowly emerged.
Many mixed reality experiences-including Magic Leap’s most famous prototype-try to deeply integrate virtual objects into real scenes. But “The Last Light” is different. Kaya’s story takes place on a floating platform like an island, which can show all elements from modern living rooms to waterfalls. With the advancement of the story, memories are gradually projected on the wall of the player’s real room, resulting in an embedded scene illusion.
The design inspiration comes from small architectural models and stage plays as well as the virtual reality short animation of “sailing age. The audience can trigger the scene of “The Last Light” at their own pace, but they cannot directly control the characters in the story or the story itself, and can only walk around to experience the whole narrative. “There is no need for exaggerated design, which is not the focus we expect,” said Dave Shumway, sound director of “The Last Light,” We want users to immerse themselves in this story told in a unique way.” The experience of about 40 minutes is much longer than most mixed reality works. The attention to art, music and dubbing makes the whole narrative no longer a simple animation.
“The Last Light” also has a strong personal resonance. Fan Huze’s script stems from the real relationship between himself and his grandparents. Tiwana lost his grandmother during the development of the work. “It is a story about the departure of relatives, so I believe it can resonate with many people. There is no doubt that I have deep feelings myself, “Tiwana said,” such stories can be realized on this platform, creating meaningful works that really touch people’s hearts instead of simple test versions, very gratifying.”
Magic Leap studio regards “the last light” as the best mixed reality: an artistic experience that plays a role in the real space in a way incomparable to other media, at the same time, it brings deeper meaning beyond the sense of novelty. Moreover, first of all, it seems to reflect Magic Leap’s overall vision. The company is cooperating with well-known game studios such as Insomniac to develop meditation games such as “Seeding. In “Seeding”, players save the dying ecosystem by cultivating holographic influence plants. “After the Create project ended, we felt that everyone had found another confident and meaningful project,” Shumway said. However, within Magic Leap, wind and rain are about to hit.
Magic Leap is a young company with a grand mission and rich funds-both of which also mean that the company will face a chaotic situation. When talking about the company, the team members of Magic Leap studio said that the company can provide incredible freedom of creation, but various departments often interfere and compete with each other. “Everyone is the king of the mountain,” Juli said. “They want to try everything, but no one can really unify the jianghu.” He said that there was a time when the team of Create project could only hide to avoid all kinds of demands for new projects.
But when the studio began to develop “The Last Light”, Magic Leap was gradually on the right track. Magic Leap is actually unique in the field of mixed reality. In this field, almost every viable company is only for small users such as enterprises, research institutions or military organizations. At first, Magic Leap seemed to want to reverse the trend on its own-to launch Magic Leap One Creator Edition to attract artists and artists, and founder Abowitz believed, this hardware “will become a utility for everyone”.
However, gradually, the company regards the consumption of glasses as a long-term goal. “Magic Leap’s vision has changed,” Adani said. In December 2019, the company renamed “Creator Edition” with the more official-sounding name “Magic Leap 1” and released a special version of the program for enterprise users. Within the studio team, Shumway said new emotions were spreading. He said: “It seems that what we were approved to do before is consistent with what we thought Magic Leap would do. But now it seems not so…… However, no one told us to stop the work at hand.”
the epidemic disrupted everything
with the support of executives including Abowitz, the studio continued to work. At the beginning of 2020, the studio achieved a great victory: “The Last Light” was shortlisted for the virtual film competition unit of the South by Southwest film festival.
Film Festival is one of the few ways to find a large number of audiences and obtain media reports in mixed reality/virtual reality, especially when works need rare and expensive hardware equipment. Sundance Film Festival has demonstrated the experience of Magic Leap technical support in the past two years, but “The Last Light” will be the longest project and the first project independently developed by Magic Leap. Previous projects have involved external artists or teams.
The successful display on the South by Southwest film festival will bring the heat of “The Last Light” to the music festival for several months, and the relatively mainstream audience-not only a small group of early users with equipment. At the same time, this is also a great opportunity to prove the strength of the studio. “This is very important to us,” Adani said. “It’s like we need to prove our existence and tell everyone the meaning of our existence. Then this also gave us a chance to announce to everyone: Look, we have made some great works. Then everyone also likes our works very much.” Even if Magic Leap gradually shifts its focus to the enterprise user side, the studio still has a series of excellent software to take, and then continues to stick to its original intention until it releases explosions that conform to the mainstream trend again. Juli said: “Everyone knows that we pointed to this southwest-South activity to renew our lives.”
later, the team began to make a cut-down version of “The Last Light” for the South by Southwest film festival, and started the final editing, mainly editing the audio and recording the last few lines of the dubbing actor. Inside the company, everything seems to be in order. The world outside Magic Leap is already a different scene.
On January 2020, the United States confirmed the first case of a new crown virus infection, and a few weeks later Washington state reported the first new death of the Crown virus. Seeing that other conferences and activities were canceled one after another, although the South by Southwest conference was not canceled, artists and exhibitors withdrew one by one and confirmed cases continued to soar, it is increasingly unrealistic to continue to hold an event of more than 30,000 people. Finally, on March 6, the organizer of the South-by-Southwest event officially announced the cancellation of the event on 2020 a week before the opening of the event, when the number of confirmed cases officially counted by the United States exceeded 200 for the first time.
At first, everyone did not think this was a disaster, at most it was a big setback. Shumway said: “At that time, there was no sign that these things would happen next. So we didn’t care much at that time and felt that everything was over. We never thought of this. Because we always feel that after a few months, the Southwest-South Conference will resume, or if the event is not done, we can also participate in the next event.”
but just as they were preparing to apply for other film festivals, Julie’s heart sank day by day. “Things are far from going in the direction we expected,” he said. “I remember talking to Jeremy about this. He told me that sometimes you can only listen to destiny.”
A few weeks have passed and 2020 has become even more bleak. The two feasts of mixed reality-New York Tribeca Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival announced an indefinite delay. Florida Governor Ron desentis issued a home order in April 1 to restrict the operation of unnecessary businesses in the state. Employees of Magic Leap, including those in the studio, returned home with the equipment and started working remotely.
Almost all team members were cut
some employees don’t worry much about their work. They think the studio is of great significance to Magic Leap. The reason, as Adani said, “We are the ones who create content. Without us, there would be no content available on the device.” Others have heard rumors that there will be major changes within the company. The upper level decided that the company must move forward quickly-or “the last light” may become another masterpiece of Magic Leap. Shumway said: “The day before the layoff was announced, we worked overtime until two or three in the morning for this project. Because at that time, we had a premonition that something big would happen. If there is anything we want to do, we ‘d better do it right away, and there may be no chance the next day.”
just as they were packing in a hurry, Magic Leap laid off about 1000 employees, accounting for half of the total number of employees, including almost everyone in the “Last Light” team. Their work is now taken over by a few employees left in the studio. As for this project, the company does not seem to care.
Magic Leap at least avoided the worst-case scenario-cutting more employees. The timely financing of 0.35 billion US dollars prevented the company from going bankrupt. The company is still developing Magic Leap 2, which is said to be expected to be released in 2021, but it seems unlikely at the moment. In May, Abowitz announced that he intended to resign as CEO of the company, saying that the company needed a new leader to “commercialize our plan for enterprise space Computing”, this rhetoric is far from the fantasy of a few years ago.
“The Last Light” is obviously at stake. Its creator said that the work was almost completed and could even be put on the application store of the equipment soon. The original plan was to put on the application store immediately after its appearance at the film festival. But the company has been very cautious about the future of the work. “The Last Light” is undoubtedly a very influential and deeply rooted work brought by the team of Magic Leap studio. We are proud of this work and are also exploring various ways to release the work, “Magic Leap spokesman said.
Some employees said that in the process of transforming to mixed reality only for enterprises, the company may feel that it is inappropriate to release a work of art related to mixed reality, or try to keep a low profile during the transition. On the other hand, if Magic Leap still hopes to publish new works at the film festival after the epidemic, the current online release of “The Last Light” will reduce the chances of participating in the activities. However, it is still unknown when these film festivals will resume, and even these activities are likely to reduce mixed reality units by then. For example, the next Sundance Film Festival will involve at least 20 cities, so the New Frontier unit is not suitable-this unit needs to be equipped with specially deployed virtual reality and augmented reality venues. Another major premise is that after the epidemic, people will not resist shared head-mounted devices.
The creator of “The Last Light” never expected the work to realize the influence of traditional games or movies, which is the price of building a new media. Even on the shelves of application stores, they did not expect the works to receive as much attention as they did in a series of film festivals. An unofficial report shows that six months before the product was released, magic Leap sold a total of 6000 devices. Based on mobile phone although the augmented reality is relatively common, it is still too clumsy and has limited performance compared with the current head-mounted devices. If the elements of mixed reality, that is, the interactive experience between reality and virtual space, are completely deleted, the whole work will lose its soul.
One step away
but even if the audience is only a little bit, not to mention the sincere emotion they put into the work, the members of the former Magic Leap studio also have the real reason why they want the work to meet the audience. Magic Leap’s massive layoffs have forced hundreds of people to look for new jobs, although many have already worked in other game studios or large technology companies such apple wait until you find a job. If “The Last Light” is buried eventually, its creators will lose the chance to show their best works. This is also a long-term problem of large game companies: a huge team carefully develops a confidential project, but it is shelved in months or years. The only official existence of “The Last Light” is a short trailer on YouTube, which contains multiple clips of the story and is played in traditional video format.
In the eyes of some people, “The Last Light” can also prove that Magic Leap can be successful, or the company is not a well-designed scam, because there are often acrimonious critics who describe Magic Leap as “Theranos in augmented reality”. The company may be too eager for success, but the company can still bring the experience of breaking through the media boundary. Javier Busto, a former senior designer, said: “Magic Leap is suspected of over-hype, but we are indeed doing some great work in the studio.”
despite the frustration, all the employees interviewed were full of nostalgia for the company. “I didn’t join Magic Leap because of technology. Does it sound a bit incredible? I joined this company because I saw that there are really interesting and challenging issues that need to be solved here, “said Tiwana. She said that she is still full of confidence in mixed reality. “I believe that the future must belong to mixed reality, but I don’t know when this day will come.”
juli believes that the problem is whether Magic Leap has enough resources to shape this kind of media, especially considering that the remaining employees have the idea of leaving their jobs one after another.” They will gradually lose every talent who knows how to develop software for this hardware, “Juli said. Not only himself and other laid-off employees.” I think it may be more feasible to focus on a small team with one or two specific tasks. But they lost too much talent. “
it is hard to say how the new Crown epidemic will change the development direction of Magic Leap. The company has been catering to professional customers. And a few months before the epidemic, there have been reports that companies are seeking acquisitions. Without amazing technological breakthroughs, Magic Leap 2 may still be unable to significantly reduce its volume or price to meet the needs of the mass market. Even if the studio team survives in the transition period, the employees in the team may not want to stay any longer.” I don’t think any of us want to stay in Magic Leap just to develop a weather application or calculator or Excel program, “Adani said,” we are here because we want to make some unusual works.
However, regardless of the overall development direction of the company, the sudden disappearance of “The Last Light” can be largely attributed to the new Crown epidemic. If the South by Southwest film festival is held as scheduled, then even if the works will cause confusion to brand cognition, Magic Leap will not give up the good opportunity of the film festival to show the innovative experience of “The Last Light, what’s more, team members said their CEO was very optimistic about” the last light.” For many people who are experiencing the epidemic, the lost ending of “The Last Light” is not only the failure of a company, but also a symbol of a heart-wrenching and familiar story: it is only one step away from the realization of the dream, but reality makes all efforts in vain.
At this moment, the former employees of the former Magic Leap studio are still hoping that “The Last Light” will have the honor to meet the public. “Everyone has devoted their efforts to this,” Adani said. “I really hope they will show mercy and let the work come out.”