Magic Leap’s augmented-reality vision started as a comic book. And I have read it.
The same art in the lobby at the check-in desk at Magic Leap’s Fort Lauderdale headquarters is from a comic that Andy Lanning, co-creator of Marvel’s 2008 revamp of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and now Magic Leap’s executive creative director, wrote along with Rony Abovitz back in 2012. Abovitz and Lanning still make frequent trips to Tate’s Comics, a fantastic comic store a few minutes up the road from Magic Leap’s offices, and Magic Leap’s ideas, they explain, sprang from weird comic-book ideas. Even the Magic Leap One’s goggle-eyed headset.
I was given a copy of Magic Leap’s original 2012 comic by Lanning and Abovitz. I read through it on my flight home from Magic Leap’s headquarters after my visit in July. I have the comic book now, sitting in my desk drawer. Here’s the story of how the comic relates to the headset, and the company’s vision.
Abovitz has a bunch of knit Magic Leap mascot stuffed animals, called Magic Leapers, that his wife helped knit. He shows me one at his desk.
Lanning explains the comic book they made: ‘The kids, they end up in a Willy Wonka-esque factory, which we are now in…’
‘Which is really weird,’ Abovitz adds. ‘It was only a comic book factory, it was drawn, now we’re in it, it freaks me out a little bit.’
That little bug-eyed mascot is a stand-in for the headset itself.
‘We didn’t know what the device was going to look like, so we used the Leaper as an avatar for the device,’ Lanning says. ‘[The kids] pick it up, and the Leaper launches a little proboscis into the kid’s head, and the kid sees through the eyes of the Leaper, and he’s then able to perceive different worlds, it unlocks different worlds. You’re getting a glimpse into the magic-verse.’
Of Magic Leap’s Leaper logo, ‘He’s our little character,’ Lanning says. ‘He’s our Mickey Mouse.’
‘So the Leaper morphed into the system, and Gary’s design is inspired by this organic creature,’ says Abovitz, referring to Gary Natsume, Magic Leap’s lead designer for its hardware (read more about Natsume here). ‘And if you really hunt around the web, you’ll see we went from a cartoon Leaper, we worked with a design firm and went to a biotech-looking Leaper. It looks like it was this really well industrial-designed biologic creature, and you’d squeeze it, and this thing would come out and attach to your forehead and lights would shine. And we actually shared that with people, and if people said, ‘What is Magic Leap?’ we would show them that picture. We said, ‘We’re a biotech company working on, like, biologic creatures that take you on these magical journeys,’ and… people stopped asking questions.’
Abovitz laughs, seeming totally surprised by the absurdity of it all, too. ‘My friends do comic books, and we put out on our site, early on, this like, biomechatronic Leaper that had this proboscis thing that looked like it came out of a Ridley Scott movie or something, and then we got funded by Google, and people said, ‘What just happened?’ We wanted to tell a really fun story without explaining what we were doing, and we wanted to work quietly, but have a really fun exterior to what was happening.’
‘This is where we’re now patting ourselves on the back and saying how genius we are,’ Lanning adds.
‘Oh, no, we had no idea what we were doing,’ says Abovitz.
‘Exactly. But, we were good at comics,’ Lanning says. ‘If you look at the device now, the shape of the lenses [is] a beautiful echo of the Leaper’s eyes. So, we’re now saying that’s what we were pointing to and alluding to back in the comic. We didn’t have a clue, but now we can say yes, of course, this was a wonderful master plan.’
Abovitz tells us, ‘The difference between a comic book team and Magic Leap is, we started to design that out, and then at some point, that’s where Andy said, ‘Wait, are you going to build the things in the comic book?’ It’s sort of like if you were working on Spider-Man, and I pulled into my garage with, ‘I just made a web shooter.”
Abovitz suggested that I might be able to go on a field trip to Tate’s later on with Lanning, which sounds great. (It doesn’t end up happening.) But he also mentions I might get a copy of that hard-to-find Magic Leap comic.
At the end of my long day, I get a message at my hotel room: The Magic Leap comic’s been left for me at the front desk.
I pick it up, late at night, and start flipping through it. ‘Welcome to the Experience,’ it says on the front. The comic is called Magic Leapers, from ‘Magic Leap Studios.’
It seems impossible that this comic came from the past. On page 1, kids are gathered outside Magic Leap Studios. The logo is the same as it is now. A kid talks about Dr. Grordbort’s Ray Guns from Weta Workshop, which is nearly the same name as the AR experience I tried on the Magic Leap One.
But inside the studios that the kids sneak into, there’s a strange biotech factory, a world where ‘meme machines’ are made from ‘4th-dimensional technologies and psychedelic physics.’ Just like Lanning and Abovitz describe, there are schools of multicolored flying-fish-like Leapers, and one extends a suction tube to stick to a kid’s forehead, and he suddenly dreams of new worlds.
Andy Lanning tells me that the issue I have is an original 2012 comic. Back then there was no HoloLens. The Oculus Rift had just hit Kickstarter. It was a different time, and the reference points for VR and AR were still mostly in wild science fiction.
The Magic Leapers in the comic, sketched out in the inside cover as part of an ‘excerpt from the field journal of Professor Vernor D’lanier, 1887,’ seem like some sort of escaped vision from Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, via a candy-colored theme park. Sparkydog, a wide-brim-hatted man who gives the kids a factory tour, has the same name as a band Abovitz was part of.
At the end of the comic, a riff on the classic Sea Monkeys ads from my childhood has been retooled into a fake ad for entering the ‘Wonderful World of Amazing Magic Leapers,’ with a mail-in form to ‘Magic Leap Industries, 45 Leaper Lane, The Sea of Tranquility, The Moon.’