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Magic Leap invited Pitchfork to its studio, and the results are maddening

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Magic Leap Sigur Rós experience Magic Leap / Pitchfork

Last week, Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz cryptically promised “fun and cool stuff” from the secretive augmented reality startup. Today, we learned what that is: an interactive music experience co-designed by the band Sigur Rós, which Magic Leap invited Pitchfork reporter Marc Hogan to try. Hogan’s resulting essay offers an interesting look at Magic Leap’s entertainment ambitions, as well as an evocative writeup of the experience. It is also deeply frustrating.

Magic Leap tightly controls reporting with strict nondisclosure agreements, which means that Pitchfork can’t say anything about the company’s elusive hardware. A few details slip in: the setup recognizes hand gestures, and objects adapt to shapes in the environment. There’s a screenshot (seen above) of the experience, although it doesn’t necessarily reflect what people will see through a pair of glasses.

The piece focuses on the musical experience, which is called Tónandi and represents a Sigur Rós track in the form of small jellyfish-like creatures that react to motion:

It has a musical arc of its own, but it’s not a “song” in any conventional sense. I can influence the sounds with my hands, but it’s neither a musical instrument, requiring skill, nor a toy, effortlessly spouting out unmusical noise. I can maneuver through a visual environment looking for computer-generated interactions, but it doesn’t feel like a game. Obviously, there’s music and video, but this is not a music video either. The Tónandi experience is more like hiking or scuba-diving in your house while also being surrounded by supernatural beings.

The experience sounds great, but people have been imagining interactive music systems for decades, and the description of Tónandi has shades of everything from ‘90s Harmonix proto-rhythm-game CamJam to the virtual reality DJ tool Electronauts, which was announced just last week. Musician and technologist Jaron Lanier worked extensively with psychedelic VR musical experiences during the first wave of VR. Pitchfork also notes the similarity to earlier “app albums” by Bjork and Radiohead.

So what makes Tónandi not just an interesting iteration of an existing idea, but an example of how Magic Leap is going to “replace everything that we know: phones, TVs, computers,” as Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós speculates? How do you get to vague pronouncements like this?

“We’re going to be in a space where you could become a creative partner at the speed of your imagination,” Abovitz enthuses. “That’s one of our goals: You imagine, you say, you create, almost at that speed. Almost at the speed of playing a guitar. You want a car and a bird, just boom boom boom, there’s a car and a bird. You want it to sing opera, ahhhh. ‘OK, stop that, go away,’ boom, they go away. We’re so close to that. It’s not fanciful. You’ll see it happen.”

Lanier was talking about the potential of instant virtual creation in 1989. You can conjure all the cars and birds you want in Second Life or its VR equivalent, Sansar. Android and iOS developers are releasing scads of augmented reality stickers that add virtual objects to the real world. Any number of companies are making augmented reality glasses. Magic Leap’s mission statement is basically “we’re doing the same thing as everyone else, but better, in ways that we won’t talk about.” When Pitchfork describes Tónandi as “an app that someday may be available for download on Magic Leap’s mysterious device,” it’s offering a bizarrely generous description, given that Magic Leap hasn’t shown us an app store, an operating system, or any kind of hardware.

It’s fine for Magic Leap to hold off on revealing hardware, but I wish the talented team behind it didn’t keep talking about their work in the most blandly inspirational manner possible, doing their best to avoid acknowledging the larger field they’re working in. As someone who’s interested in the complicated question of fitting augmented reality into everyday life, rather than repetitions of hoary futurist talking points, the overall feeling I’m getting from Magic Leap is contempt.