10 Mysteries in Magic Leap’s Infamous TEDx Talk — That You Might Have Missed
Magic Leap, the mysterious startup from Florida, has secured $600 million dollars in funding from Google and others — for a product that hasn’t been released.
Despite leaks, articles, patents, and high-profile hires, Magic Leap’s ultimate vision is shrouded in mystery. From the outside, it looks like they’re building the tech that will replace smartphones, PCs, and the Web as we know it. And this has tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple gearing up for a massive arms race.
So what is Magic Leap planning for the future?
To find out, I dug into their infamously cryptic “surreal neo-dadaist” 2012 TEDx talk — and if you’ve already seen it, you may be surprised by what you missed…
1. A Secret Message
Magic Leap’s CEO Rony Abovitz takes the stage dressed as a spaceman, while an encoded binary message appears behind him. What could it mean?
Rony recently hinted that there is a coherent message embedded in this talk. Aside from the abstract impressions implied by the rest of the talk, this binary code could be part of that message.
“Fudge” appears over and over in Magic Leap’s “alternate reality”—in the TEDx talk, on Facebook, Twitter, a comic book, in other TEDx talks (more about this later), and who knows where else.
On the one hand, “fudge” could just be a red herring. At first glance the whole talk feels like an absurdist corporate-surrealist work of art like The Institute or Bonk Business. The repetition of “fudge” acts to increase the sense of disorientation and misinformation. In this respect it’s exactly like the typical corporate presentation :-)
On the other hand, the giant bar of “space fudge” represents the all-important Monolith from the film “2001”—the Monolith which was left by an ancient alien species, and spurs along man’s evolution at faster rates.
And on the yet another hand there’s the “magical keyword” revealed in the talk…
3. Phydre, ΦΥΔΓΕ, Phudge, Fudge
Rony the spaceman delivers only two lines in his speech. And one of the lines is about the “ancient and magical keyword: phydre”. So what the heck is “phydre”?
It turns out it’s just more fudge in disguise — ”phydre” it’s a phoneticization for “fudge” by way of Greek characters. So maybe there is something to “fudge” after all…
Perhaps “fudge” is the key to decode the binary message revealed earlier?
4. Moore’s law, the Singularity, relativity, Strange Loops, quantum physics, the Uncanny Valley, and the Florida Skunk Ape
The “answer to everything” part of the talk features some far-out imagery that alludes to the deepest questions in quantum physics, consciousness, the nature of reality, and the future of technology and humanity.
These small, blurry images were only shown for split seconds at the back of the stage, so they’re easy to miss as we’re distracted by the spectacle of the Shaggles going crazy to punk rock on center stage.
The images include the Uncanny Valley, a graph of Moore’s Law leading into the Singularity, the cover of Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, and more. Some of this was probably thrown in for fun — like the Florida Skunk Ape — but the rest could refer to the strange time-and-space-bending illusions that Magic Leap’s technology will usher in over the next few decades.
One gets the sense that the silliness of the talk serves to get across the message without the usual pomposity; to retain a sense of humility while introducing something they really believe in, and weed out people that just don’t “get it”.
This summer, Magic Leap is preparing a public demonstration directed by the physicist Brian Cox that will address the “deepest possible questions” about the origins of the universe. So it’s possible that the images in their TEDx talk reflect a similar line of thinking. Or these images could just add to the “techno surrealism” vibe of the talk.
Magic Leap’s CEO Rony Abovitz said they’re developing the interface that we’ll use “for the next 30 or 40 years”, so they’re clearly thinking about far-ranging ideas decades into the future. As amazing as Magic Leap’s product will be, it will still just be version 1.0 — there’s much more to come in the next decades, so it pays to have a long roadmap.
5. Ark in a National Park
The band in the TEDx talk is the New Zealand punk group Ghidoragh. The lyrics of their song Threat Level Ultra cheerfully invite us all to check out their “ark in a national park”…at least that’s what it sounds like they’re singing…
The “ark in a national park” could relate to an image from an earlier incarnation of Magic Leap’s website: a couple holding hands in what looks the Salt Flat national park. The implication is that they’re wearing Magic Leap glasses and looking at something only they can see—like a giant virtual ark.
If we can have a city on a rainbow (as you’ll see later), then a giant virtual Ark in the Salt Flats seems entirely reasonable. Burning Man 2020 is going to be very interesting ^_^
Not coincidentally, two members of Ghidoragh, Greg Broadmore & Christian Pearce, are also artists at Weta Workshop, a Magic Leap partner. Greg created the fictional steampunk world of Dr. Grordbort, which is the setting of one of Magic Leap’s games.
6. Surreal Imagery
There are many surreal images in the Magic Leap talk, but this one in particular stands out. It tells a story about the possibilities of mixed reality. Imagine you’re driving over a river while wearing your Magic Leap glasses. You look over and see a virtual rainbow above the real river—with an imaginary city covering the rainbow’s arch, with virtual boats sailing on the water below. Sounds far-fetched, but this is exactly the sort of thing Magic Leap’s tech will lead to in the future: surreal computer-generated images that appear to be part of the real world.
Now imagine a virtual double rainbow city ^_^
7. Magic Leap created several imaginary worlds — comics, an album, an iPhone app, websites, conference appearances, collaborations with Weta Workshop, etc.
The TEDx “un-talk” was just one part of the imaginary world that Magic Leap built over the past few years. Magic Leap’s founders and early employees are all creatives whose need to share is a fundamental part of their DNA. But they’re also a tech company in stealth, so they must keep their work secret, lest the tech titans catch sight of their taillights.
The compromise seems to have been an artistic form of cryptography — encoding and obfuscating their vision in such a way that in hindsight it’s obvious what they were hinting at — given the right “key” to decode the message.
The Sparkdog & Friends comic is a time-and-space-tripping journey that shares at least two elements with Magic Leap’s TEDx talk—fudge and the Shaggles. If you cross your eyes enough, you can see that the comic is also an exploration of what life in mixed reality could be like, projected through the fanciful lens of comic book reality. For example, traveling to a virtual reality past and interacting with simulated virtual characters or real actors in a virtual space. The TEDx talk is even more crypto-surreal, but as we’ve seen it also provides clear glimpses into Magic Leap’s thinking circa 2012.
But it’s not all fun and games. Magic Leap’s works have conflict threaded throughout. What on the surface look like whimsical experiments in style actually contain a healthy dose of realism. In the Sparkydog & Friends comic, the band plays at the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and then travels to Cambodia that same year to save a child from bombing. Magic Leap’s Hour Blue app is set in a dystopian post-Singularity future, and the Hour Blue websites include multiple references to the time & place of Nikola Tesla’s death, among others. Why these particular dark references and settings?
One common theme is the year 1969 (or thereabouts). 2001, the moon landing, Altamont, Cambodia. 1969 was a major turning point, where major cultural, political, spiritual, and technological forces converged to change the world forever. Could it be as simple as that—saying that we’ll look back on the current moment in history as a similar turning point? While perhaps also acknowledging the inevitability of negative elements that we as a species can’t seem to shake, no matter how many new good ideas we try?
8. Blooper: space fudge on stage during other TEDx talks
As if the giant Space Fudge visual non-sequitor wasn’t funny enough, Magic Leap’s prop stayed on stage for many of the other 12/12/12 TEDx talks in Sarasota. It certainly lends an absurdist note.
9. 2001 References
The first part of Magic Leap’s talk is an homage to “The Dawn of Man” sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The sun rises as a pair of furry Shaggles awaken to a monolith of Thwaxo’s Strangely Demented Space Fudge. By referencing 2001, Magic Leap could imply that their products are a paradigm shift that will fundamentally change the human condition.
Things get weird when we draw the parallels between 2001 and the TEDx talk. The alien monolith is represented by a giant bar of “Thwaxo’s Strangely Demented Space Fudge”. The apes are played by a pair of actors dressed as furry purple and green “Shaggles”.
But the symbols of the rest of 2001’s “Dawn of Man” sequence aren’t as apparent in the TEDx talk— the all-important bone and its evolved form: an orbiting nuclear satellite. Rock-paper-scissors might be the bone, and the virtual door, flying robot, and nanomachines could be the nuclear satellite. Or not…the references simply might have stopped at the monolith, with no parallels for the bone and satellite from 2001. To say nothing of the other iconic parts of 2001: HAL 9000, the star gate, the space baby, and so on. Or maybe those symbols are referenced, but more obliquely? For example, Rony the spaceman could represent the Bowman character from 2001, and the images on the screen behind him could be a re-interpretation of the star gate and / or “neoclassical hotel room” sequences at the end of the film.
And if the monolith is alien technology that advances man’s evolution in 2001, then what is the symbolism of the space fudge monolith? Hard to know for sure without a clear sense of what “fudge” represents in this talk.
One possibility is that Magic Leap used “fudge” as a stand-in to represent their tech that they couldn’t talk about—i.e., fudge as “black censorship bars”. It would certainly explain the prominent role fudge plays. Magic Leap’s founder Rony Abovitz is a musician, and has mentioned iconic videos, songs, and concerts in interviews. The Shaggles’ cue card performance might be a reference to INXS’s Mediate video, or possible Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video. Bob Dylan’s cue cards include intentional misspellings and puns, which would add credence to the possibility that “fudge” is intentional misdirection.
Many alternative meanings present themselves—fudge as hastily constructed technology, fudge as a nonsense word, and so on—but these are just guesses.
10. Mixed reality applications — virtual doors, drones & robots, rock-paper-scissors
Virtual doors will appear in a room and be manipulated with our hands. This could even be used as an early form of organizing information in mixed reality—rooms, drawers, and cabinets that display and organize information.
The Mars rover scenario entails seeing from the point-of-view of the rover and controlling its digger arm, for example. Speed-of-light limitations make real-time feedback impossible with Mars, but we will control drones and robots on Earth and see their POV in real-time.
The rock-paper-scissors scenario takes a bit more imagination: while you’re wearing Magic Leap’s glasses, you’ll see your hand and your friend’s hand turn into whatever shape you make. In other words, make a fist and your hand will appear as a rock, lay your hand flat and it will become paper, and so on.
11. And beyond (tm)
Reading between the lines of Magic Leap’s registered trademarks reveals a great deal about their ambitions:
The World is your new Desktop™ means that computing is about to surround us. The computer interfaces that are now confined to tiny glass screens will soon be set free to roam the entire world. Let that sink in.
Rocketship for the Mind™ is a shot straight across Apple’s bow — a one-up of Steve Job’s famous comparison of computers to a “bicycle for the mind”. Magic Leap is implying that their products will be as metaphorically powerful as rocketships, which will make existing computers and smartphones (including those made by Apple) look as slow or incapable as bicycles, relatively speaking.
A New Operating System for Reality™ is marketing-speak hyperbole, but it implies a new platform for interfacing with reality. It’s a bold statement about the long-term capabilities of Magic Leap’s technology. While most existing objects (and their atoms!) will initially remain largely unaffected, they will take on new appearances and affordances thanks to the illusions made possible by mixed reality glasses.
The “Everything Everywhere” Mixed Reality Revolution is Coming
Magic Leap’s TEDx talk is widely misunderstood. What at first glance seems completely random and haphazard actually contains a carefully crafted message that’s brimming with layered meanings and mysteries.
Mixed reality is the next evolution of computer interfaces. It will replace smartphones, tablets, PCs, and the Web as we know it. A major tech revolution is coming.
If all of this seems too far-fetched for you, consider this recent image from Magic Leap’s homepage. And then try to understand how Magic Leap will make this happen… Which is real and which is virtual: the girl, the hands, or both?