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Magic Leap and 5G illuminate catwalk fashion designs with lightning and skulls

Celebrities at London Fashion Week got a whole new view of the latest designs on the runway thanks to mixed reality.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As the lights dimmed and the urgent, teeth-rattling beat kicked in, the throng of people cleared to allow the models to stride down the runway.

Perched just in front of me on a narrow white bench, a row of celebrities, including former Spider-man Andrew Garfield and Game of Thrones actor Natalie Dormer, ceased their small talk and pulled the Magic Leap headsets down over their eyes.

Central Saint Martins Catwalk - London Fashion Week February 2019

Andrew Garfield wears Magic Leap.

Doug Peters/PA Wire

They, along with a room of London's fashion elite, were about to see one of fashion week's most highly anticipated shows -- the latest collection from emerging designers out of the UK's top fashion school, Central Saint Martins. This is where fashion editors go to try to spot the stars of the future.

But one of the designers was offering up a collection with a difference. The playful clothes crafted by designer Gerrit Jacob were accompanied by a mixed-reality show that floated above the models as they took to the catwalk. Through the Magic Leap headsets, the celebrities were able to witness a series of explosive animations designed to complement the designs.

It's far from the first time we've seen technology play a starring, albeit novelty, role at a fashion week event. Back in 2012, the designer Diane von Furstenberg featured models in her show at New York Fashion Week wearing Google Glass, while in London in 2014 one designer showed off a dress made of Nokia phones. With the Google Glass example in particular, there was some emphasis on trying to make "nerdwear" cool by integrating with high fashion, but the aim of bringing Magic Leap to the front row is somewhat different.

Running on a permanent 5G network installed by UK network Three at the college, the show was supposed to showcase the two-year partnership between them. While many people are excited about the speed boost they're set to enjoy with the advent of 5G, the potential use cases and benefits of the tech go far beyond just better data speeds on our phones.

With 5G base stations around the building and an antenna on the roof, fashion students will be able to experiment with more efficient creative collaboration and develop new products and retail concept in a dedicated lab.

Mixed reality -- a sort of middle ground between virtual reality and augmented reality -- is one area of tech set to benefit hugely from 5G, which will reduce lag time and improve the smoothness and stability of content viewing. (Good-bye, VR sickness.) It also has the capacity to run many devices at once, making mixed-reality experiences more social, with more people able to enjoy the same content in the same place at the same time.

Enter Magic Leap, one of the most heavily hyped startups of recent years. Its headsets aren't just another box affixed to your face, like many VR headsets. The black, bug-eyed goggles allow you to see the world as it really is, but overlaid with 3D moving animations. But this is far from a mass-market device right now. At over $2,200, it's prohibitively expensive for most people, and it's also not yet widely available.

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Ahead of the fashion show, which took place the day after Valentine's Day, I got a taste of the mixed-reality experience, designed by Greg Furber and his team at the Rewind content studio, in a demo session at the same venue. The Magic Leap googles showed me a display of dancing animations, including a fierce, giant tiger's head, levitating above a model whose  trousers were emblazoned with sharks.

At one point, increasingly large skulls, looming like dark marks from the Harry Potter universe, whistled forward one by one. They were designed to look like a series of bosses from video games, Furber said, as Jacob's collection was inspired by a combination of video games and old fairground rides that make you jump.

I personally found the animations mesmerizing, if not exactly frightening, and I was curious to know whether the celebrities who saw it for the first time at the show thought of the experience.


Model Lennon Gallagher wears one of Gerrit Jacobs' designs.

Matt Alexander/PA Wire

"There were skulls floating around, there was lightning," said YouTuber Jim Chapman, who was sitting amid the great and good on the front row. "I think it's great for graduate fashion week in particular because it's new and innovative and exciting, and it also kind of matched the looks."

The version of the mixed-reality content I saw was downsized by a factor of 10 and displayed only above one static model. As the frames of a Magic Leap headset limit your field of vision, I wondered whether the celebrities experiencing it at the show would be able to enjoy the full effect while also admiring at the clothes. Chapman offered reassurances.

"I didn't know what to expect, and with the goggles on I thought, 'Am I going to be able to see things properly?'" he said. "But it actually does really enhance it."

Unfortunately I wasn't able to experience the Magic Leap in the context of the show myself, due to a limited number of headsets being available in the UK (the 10 on loan for the show were reserved for celebs). But, said Furber, availability of headsets was the only thing standing in the way of him not being able to deliver the same experience to all of the attendees.


At a demo ahead of the show.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"I'm completely confident that if you gave me 700 headsets, one for every seat in that place, I could run it across that same network, across that same meals, and have every one of their 700 people have the same experience," he said.

High-speed networks take the processing off the device and allow it to happen in the cloud, with not a single frame drifting out of sync, he explained. And as a content creator for VR, AR and mixed reality, he can be more ambitious than ever before.

With full 5G rollout imminent, and hopefully a few more headsets to go around, Fashion Week 2020 promises to be great fun.

"Suddenly, what -- you're able to create and render and then beam to someone's device at great speed," Furber said. "it kind of frees us just to go crazy."