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Wearable Tech

For Magic Leap to be truly magical, it needs content, content, content

After shipping its headset this summer, the mixed reality startup will use its LEAP conference this week to woo developers.

Magic Leap

Magic Leap, one of the most talked-about, overhyped startups in the tech industry, reached a major milestone this summer when it released its mixed reality headset to developers after years of promises.

Now CEO Rony Abovitz and his team are working to convince developers and creative types who've paid $2,295 for the first-generation Magic Leap One "Creator Edition" to invest in its platform. And that means creating enough cool games, apps and interactive experiences so that when Magic Leap finally delivers a consumer version of its steampunk-inspired headset, sometime in the hopefully not-too-distant future, we'll want to buy it.

Which is why Magic Leap is holding its first public developer conference, called LEAP ("Learn, Engage, Accelerate, Program") this week in Los Angeles.

The Magic Leap One headset.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Abovitz and his team need to inspire his developers and partners, to show them that his device is worth spending their time, energy and money on. Without that creative energy, and the apps that come with it, Magic Leap cannot deliver on the promise of the world-changing technology that everyone, from venture capitalists to tech futurists to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, says is coming.

The pitch is there's a new wave of technology that will be as much a revelation as the early internet and the first Apple iPhone were in their times. These new headsets, which can either immerse you in a computer-generated world or overlay computer information on the real world we live in, will change the way we interact with computers, ourselves and everything else.

These technologies, Zuckerberg wrote in 2014, were  "once the dream of science fiction." But so were the internet, computers and smartphones, he said. "The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together."

If you believe that promise, then Magic Leap is one of the most important companies out there. Which explains why it's raised over $2.3 billion from backers including Google and AT&T.

Now playing: Watch this: What it's like to experience Magic Leap One
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A few weeks before the headset unveiling, CNET was invited to Magic Leap's headquarters in Plantation, Florida, to talk to Abovitz and other top executives, try its gear, see the in-house factory where it manufactures the optics it claims puts the magic in its system and hear about its development and content ambitions.

And we heard how its developer conference, which will comprise hundreds of invite-only devotees and potential partners, is the start of what Abovitz calls the kickoff to a "Magical Mystery Tour." Over the next year, it'll include developer roadshows all over the country and "consumer experiential" events where people can try on the headset for themselves.

"I kind of feel like Magic Leap is a band that has to go play a bunch of smaller clubs, prove our worth to everybody," Abovitz said in a July interview. "We're just going to get out there and play to one person in the crowd if we have to, and just be the hardest-working band and just keep doing that for the next 18 months or so."

A different type of magic

If you buy a Magic Leap system today, you get a headset, called Lightwear, that weighs less than a pound and looks like it came out of sci-fi flick. It's an oval-shaped ring thats sits like a crown on your head to distribute the weight and that puts its  round lenses, with cameras on either side, right in front of your eyes.

The tech built into those lenses is attached by a wire to the small disc-shaped computer called Lightpack, which straddles your pocket and has enough computing power to generate realistic-looking 3D images of real and fictional characters and scenes that are then overlaid onto the real world. That means you could be sitting at home while your kids play and also be reading an email or watching a baseball game in the corner of your living room, on a screen you can see in your glasses but that isn't there in the real world. You navigate through that world and experiences with a remote control that Magic Leap calls Control.

This mashup of the real and virtual worlds is called "augmented reality" (AR) or "mixed reality" (MR).  And it's different from  virtual reality (VR), which completely immerses you in a computer-generated world.

While techies are excited about MR, it has the same content problems VR does. In particular, there's very little you can do with it.

There aren't many MR apps or games, and there certainly isn't a "killer app," an experience that gets everyone buzzing that they just have to try it. If you put a Magic Leap One headset on right now, you'll get a few demonstrations cooked up by the company, including the painting and Lego-like building program Project Create and others created by the company's enthusiastic early supporters.

What you won't find is a thriving ecosystem of apps like what's available on the PC, the Mac, the iPhone and Android-powered devices. At least, not yet. But it's those apps, experts say, that are going to be what convinces us that these VR and AR devices may someday be worth caring about.

Magic Leap promises to overlay computer images on the real world. Kinda like Pokemon Go, but in a headset.

Niantic

"It's going to take time," said James Iliff, the co-founder and creative director at Survios, a company that makes virtual reality games like the movie-inspired boxing title Creed: Rise To Glory.

Magic Leap and other headsets, including Microsoft's $5,000 HoloLens and Facebook's $399 Oculus Rift VR headset, are still in their early days in terms of user adoption, with some analysts estimating that fewer than 9 million headsets will be sold this year. (Magic Leap declined to share sales figures.) A key reason everyday people haven't bought in yet is there's just not enough compelling applications and content.

That's why Iliff thinks Magic Leap needs to inspire developers to invest time, money and energy into building apps for its device. And it's probably why Magic Leap has partnered with groups like the Royal Shakespeare Co., the NBA and Star Wars maker Lucasfilm, which aims to create experiences inspired by the popular space drama.

"All that matters for Magic Leap is they get their hardware into the hands of developers and start getting stuff being made," Iliff said.

That's Abovitz's plan too. "We know we have to prove to everybody why we have a reason for being," he said, talking about the reason for hosting the developer conference and the following roadshows. "We want you to have a great experience, to have something happen that was amazing, and to learn about that. And then either become a fan now, or if you're a creator, it's like, 'Let me get my hands on and start building it.'"

From hype to reality

Since its release in August, the Magic Leap One has gotten cautiously optimistic reviews.

"Whether it's more than a developer prototype, and whether it amazes you, is another story," CNET reviewer Scott Stein wrote after trying the Magic Leap headset shortly before it went on sale.

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Some industry insiders have praised Magic Leap's design.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The experience is the best of its kind that he's tried so far, but it needs to wow. It's "a step forward, but not a game changer. Not yet, at least," Stein wrote. "It all depends on what comes next."

Complicating it all is that Magic Leap built up a lot of hype in the tech world before even before showing off its first prototypes publicly. Some developers and industry watchers told me that hype may have made it hard for the company to deliver the magic what we're all expecting in its first release.

"It has to be something where you go 'wow,' but want to go back to it too," said Mike Bloxham, an analyst at research firm Frank N. Magid Associates.  "If people's heightened expectations of the device aren't met, they're going to turn away from it and say it's not worth the hype or money."

Magic Leap has won over a few people already, like Travis Falstad, development director of MR and VR at RelayCars, which lets you virtually get behind the wheel of all sorts of cars.

When he first tried Magic Leap, Falstad was inspired in a way he hadn't been with other devices. Part of it was the included controller that acts like a wand, which you can swing and tap on to interact with what Magic Leap shows you (others require that you make gestures with your hands in order to work). The Magic Leap controller gave Falstad and his team the idea to build a mini-car racing game using the images they'd already created for VR experiences.

"We think car sales will change a lot in the next 10 to 20 years," he said, citing anecdotes that people are reluctant to go to dealerships and increasingly are doing car research at home first.

He's not under the illusion that a game like his will suddenly catch fire among the people who've bought Magic Leap devices so far this year. But like other developers before him, Falstad's betting that devices like Magic Leap One or HoloLens will catch on, eventually.

"We're making that investment with the strong hope that it applies to these future platforms," he said.

For Abovitz, 2018 and beyond is all about winning the support of more developers like Falstad. We asked him in July what success looks like for the company in the near term. He says it's about moving the company past the hype and getting content, content, content.

"2018 is we have gotten our creator community that was behind the scenes and the one in public activated," Abovitz said. "We do our LEAP conference, and people start to make a lot of cool stuff. We get to share a lot of cool stuff, and the entire conversation of "Is it real?" is completely gone."

CNET's Connie Guglielmo and Scott Stein contributed to this report.

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