I Get Spatial Computing, Really

Early Adopter

I buy the Magic Leap One device when it is announced. I have zero interest in the Hololens nor very little interest in the Vive/Oculus stuff either. AR is where I think it’s going to be and the ML1 seems better suited for that.

First mistake number one: Thinking the term spatial computing is just Magic Leap’s proprietary way of saying Augmented Reality. It’s not, it’s really not. That is key and you should take the time to realize that.

Therefore, I get my ML1 and think of it as an AR device. I try all the apps and still don’t quite have the switch flip. I still see it as AR and think of concepts in the AR space.

Magic Leap Con

I go to Magic Leap Con a month after getting my device. I attend sessions and the closest I get to understanding spatial computing as a thing is from the WETA talks. It doesn’t really click though and since most of my concepts are business and not entertainment focused, their sage advice sorta goes in one ear and out the other. To be clear, this is not their fault. It is entirely mine.

I walk away from Magic Leap Con with a feeling that something special is going to happen, but I really don’t see how to join in the revolution since I’m not understanding what their revolution is.

My kids and parents try the ML1 during this time. While entertaining, the device never really catches on. Part of this I think is more the nature of it being a creator device vs finished consumer product, plus some of it is the lack of software library. Again, both to be expected, but a part of me wants them to “get it” to help me “get it”.

Oculus Quest

Fast forward to May of 2019, Oculus launches the Quest. I pick one up because I like the untetheredness of the system. My kids take an immediate liking to it, because it’s a finished product with a robust library.

My 6 year old daughter plays on the Quest with her friends and cousins all the time. The same goes for my teenage sons. The key though is that the Quest is an entertainment device to them, not a productivity device. Though seeing them embrace the headset is what’s key to this story.

AT&T/Magic Leap B2B Hackathon

The moment of clarity for spatial computing hits during a small, little hackathon in Plano, Texas at the end of September. Now, I’m a veteran of hackathons. It’s typically where Team Omega Ortega gets to shine. However, we typically shine because we know the tech inside out as we enter the hackathon and focus solely on the problem. This time is different. We don’t know the tech or how we are going to build our solution.

The hackathon is very well done on quite a number of fronts. It reminds me of the golden age of hackathons, which I put in the 2013 to 2014 timeframe. What makes it great:

  1. Corporate representation: the folks from AT&T and Magic Leap are top notch. Seriously. In the golden age, you often had CTO/CIOs from the sponsoring company at the hackathons with their direct reports there to help guide your ideas. AT&T folks were instrumental by giving candid feedback to our mediocre first concept, and helping us hone and lock down a far better second concept. Without them, without their help on the idea, all the technical help would’ve been a waste of time.
  2. Technical representation: This event is interesting because it’s a dual headline, AT&T AND Magic Leap. The Magic Leap team is also on point, I feel even more so than at Leap Con. Last year, I just didn’t get the impression that the team was there to sit down with devs and get them coding, stop roadblocks as they learned, etc. There was a whole conference going on and lots of people to talk to. Here though, the team runs a workshop and then constantly follows up helping throughout the event. Whenever we are stuck, it is no more than 5 minutes before we are unstuck with the Magic Leap team’s help. When you only have 36 hours to go from idea to demo, every minute counts and having immediate help is not just “nice to have”. It’s downright required. The Magic Leap team knows not just their platform, but also Unity, a 3rd party tool.
  3. Biz Dev: Both companies have biz dev people there. Hearing them talk about things, hearing what they need, hearing them extrapolate on what the future holds, all that is priceless. To hear how these large corporations see the future, to be able to tell yourself, “I can implement this component of that concept” is something I’ve never had at a hackathon.

Sidenote: I’m a native kinda guy. That’s why I bypassed Java and the JVM in the 2000s and went for more web platform specific languages. On the mobile side of the house, I am a native SDK fan, especially in the iOS world: UIKit, ARKit, SpriteKit, SceneKit, etc. I have avoided Unity like the plague, because I threw it into the same camp as Java. Instead though, Unity is more like Flash when the platform was the web. Unity’s platform is more about making it fun to build your idea and get it on the platform you’re aiming for. It’s striving for a lot more than just “Write once, run anywhere”. That was a big aha moment for me as well. In all honesty, I like Unity and look forward to using it more and more moving forward.

Catching the Vision vs Providing the Vision

Typically, when we go to hackathons and in particular to the ones we’ve won, we present our vision of what the sponsoring company should do/build. The companies are adrift and seeking something to anchor themselves too. That’s how we’re used to working. We’re used to providing the vision.

At this hackathon though, the tables turn. Everyone there catches the vision from both AT&T and Magic Leap. The amazing thing about this is that there is no huge presentation, no canned “Let us explain what spatial computing is so you can get it.” They don’t try to beat some concept into us. Instead, they toss out some concepts, provide devices to play with and the support to let us catch the vision as they see it.

The winners from the hackathon prove just how successful that plan was. I’m not sure how many people there, AT&T, Magic Leap and participants included, know just how singular the event is. When I heard the teams talk after awards, it’s not “Oh well, that was fun, time to go back to life as normal.” It’s definitely more like, “Oh who cares if we won, we’re doing this. We’re building this. We’re gonna change the landscape.”

It’s like that legend about how everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album started a band. I think the same will be said of this event. Many a companies will be birthed from this event. One or two might succeed, while most will fail. Those that fail will morph into other companies with other spatial computing ideas, but no one in attendance I think will ever go back to thinking of computing in the “normal” sense.

Stepping into the Future vs Building for Ubiquity

Josh Littlefield of Magic Leap holds the honor of bringing about one of the few turning points of my professional life. The first was the guy from Disney (whose name I never got) that told me I was a consultant and that if I didn’t charge appropriately, I was stupid so I started charging consultant prices. The next was when I made my first iPhone app and the thrill I experienced as I “touched” my software creations for the first time. The third is my conversation with Josh.

All my life, I’ve looked at various new technologies as they are announced. Most of the time, I pass em with a “meh” type attitude. Those I do fall for, I fall for deeply and think, “Once this is everywhere, what would that allow me to build?” I then think up an idea and try to implement it. For about 2 decades, I’ve done that and for 2 decades, I’ve been frustrated as I’ve been 5 to 10 years too early for every idea of mine.

What I never thought of and what Josh helped me see with a clarity so singular that it shook me to my core was this:

“Your idea is like step 3 of 3, once the technology is everywhere. However, right now, companies need help with step 1. They want to get to step 3, but they can’t just take the leap of faith there. They can’t because their customers need help getting there just as much as they do. You need to show them step 1, you need to help them move in the direction so that you can eventually implement and sell your step 3.”

Read that again. If you build anything for the future, I cannot stress how profound those seemingly simple statements are. So much frustration in my life has been around “Why don’t people get this? Why don’t companies understand this is how things will be?” Then time passes and when I’m proven right, I throw my hands up and say, “See! Why didn’t you listen?”

The problem there is that I am the issue. I am the problem. I don’t take the time to give steps. I don’t take the time to break my concept down further and further into digestible bite size pieces. Instead, I want to jam (or at times, slam) the whole enchilada into their mouth to chew and swallow in one go. (The hilarious thing there is I take small bites and chew notoriously long! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )

At the event, Josh also hints at some other ideas about spatial computing that just never crossed my simple mind. These hints open up pathways and trails to a future I had not imagined; I can see things clearly now but, more importantly, cannot unsee the future I’ve now glimpsed.

Final Thoughts

It’s the combination of all these things that makes that last weekend in September a huge turning point for me. It’s rare in life that we get to experience these turning points. Being involved with technology professionally helps you encounter many different types of tech, but accordingly you get to see which ones have legs and which ones don’t. The joy I receive from these turning points is what keeps me in tech. It’s the fuel that feeds my soul’s burning passion for building the future.

One of the best parts of turning points is how not only does excitement return, but your vision expands to provide you with at least another decade or two worth of ideas. You then have to start the process of filtering and, what I just learned, simplifying those ideas so that you can implement. Atop of that, I still have ideas for the mobile space that I need to wrap up before moving on permanently to spatial computing. Ideas that still may benefit from the step process I just learned.

What can I say? It’s a great time to be alive and I love my job now more so than ever before! If you want to bring some of this enthusiasm into your organization, you can by reaching out to my team at Omega Ortega. I can’t wait to show you what I have in mind, especially since Magic Leap announced the new Concepts section of their store.