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Wearable Tech

Magic Leap works best when it makes you question reality

I trained Star Wars porgs, fought robot invaders in a living room and sat across a table with the future of AI.

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An illustration of what the view is like wearing a Magic Leap One headset while playing the Dr. Grordbort's Invaders.

Magic Leap

There are two porgs from Star Wars running around a living room. One waddles near my feet while the other is out of my sightline behind a small bookshelf. Things are getting chaotic, but also really fun.

To get them to behave, a hologram of C-3PO advises I gain their trust by offering the porg near my feet a treat. The little furry guy is elated when I give him one, but then out of nowhere, the Star Wars theme plays from a smart speaker atop the little bookshelf. Next to it, proudly flapping its penguin-like wings, is that other very full-of-himself porg. Apparently, I'm a horrible porg sitter. I just hope Chewbacca doesn't Wookiee-yell at me.

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A graphic depicting what you see during the Star Wars Project Porg experience on the Magic Leap One.

ILMxLAB

I go to pick up one, but my hands grab just air. This isn't some Jedi mind trick, but rather an experiment made by ILMxLab called Star Wars Project Porg. I'm experiencing it via the Magic Leap One Creator Edition headset, a $2,295 developer headset that combines the real world in front of you with a digital one in a medium called mixed reality.

Mixed reality (MR) is kind of like the augmented reality (AR) used on a phone playing Pokemon Go, but much more immersive since it is happening millimeters in front of your eyes. It's also different from virtual reality (VR) in which you wear a headset that completely blocks the real world from view. With the Magic Leap One, lenses allow you to see the real world while cameras and sensors on the headset map the room to make the digital porgs responsive to where furniture and walls are. All this makes for some truly amazing, trippy shit.

After a while, both porgs have made their way over to the TV and are watching Star Wars: Last Jedi. These guys are definitely on-brand. Eventually tuckered out, they fall asleep. My mind, eyes and reality, though, are blown by what I just went through.

Project Porg was one of eight MR experiences I got to try at Magic Leap Con in October. Some of these experiences, which ranged from games to a glimpse at the future of artificial-intelligence assistants, were the closest any technology has come to making me feel the playful wonder I felt as a child building Lego for hours. At the end of the developer conference, my eyes felt drunk and I had trouble discerning what was real and what was a mere digital illusion. But one thing was crystal clear: There is a tremendous amount of potential for Magic Leap and its developer headset.

Here are two experiences I went through that best show off Magic Leap's versatility and promise.

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Dr. Grordbort's Invaders

If there's one experience meant to show the Magic Leap One's potential, it's Dr. Grordbort's Invaders. This game is to Magic Leap what Super Mario Brothers is to Nintendo. It's beautifully designed, intuitive to control and a blast to play.

I have to defend myself against a robot invasion that's burst through the wall of a living room. Just an average Wednesday, right? Weta Workshop, the concept and physical effects house behind films like Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Blade Runner: 2049 designed the game based off a 1970s sci-fi movie-style ray gun it built.

The Magic Leap One comes with a controller the size of a TV remote that lets you choose settings and in this case, fire a digital ray gun. A friendly robot named Gimble offers me the particle beam weapon. To take it, I simply "touch" the real controller against the digital ray gun. Instantly, the ray gun is overlaid atop the controller. This is what MR is all about: I see a ray gun, but anyone watching me sees me holding a tiny controller.

Throughout the game, Doctor Strange-like holes open up randomly in the walls of the living room and a federation of robots attack me with ray guns of their own. To fire back, I simply pull the trigger button on the controller. This all seems natural and intuitive, especially under the pressure of dodging incoming blasts of ray gun fire. To anyone watching me, it seems as if I'm staring at a blank wall, pointing a TV remote at it like a gun and doing an odd form of squats and rolls.

Dr. Grordbort's Invaders is more immersive and fun than a traditional console video game because the action takes place in your space, be it a living room, bedroom or wherever you are. It's a context you don't get by playing games on a TV screen. And that immersive feeling is addictive.

Magic Leap One

The Magic Leap One headset is built for developers designing MR experiences.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mica

I walk into a dining room and sit down at a bare table with an empty picture frame on it. When I put the Magic Leap One on there's a woman named Mica sitting across from me. She looks more like an animation than a real person, but her eye movements and facial expressions are very human. She doesn't have those dead CGI-eyes you see in some video games.

Mica reacts to my smile by squinting her eyes at me playfully and then flashing a big smile of her own. I laugh out of nervousness and she leans forward a bit and looks me right in the eye. This is such an odd sensation because this back-and-forth feels natural despite only one of us actually being a human. This silent exchange of expressions goes on for a minute or two, reminding me of an acting exercise I did in theater school designed to improve my skill at being in the moment with another actor.

Mica shows how future AI assistants can be more human.

Magic Leap

Eventually she points to the empty picture frame on the table and nods for me to hang it on a nail on the wall. After I hang the frame, it's filled with a painting of a wooden tobacco pipe by the surrealist painter René Magritte. To anyone watching, it looks like I'm staring at an empty picture frame taking nonverbal directions from an empty chair.

Under the pipe are the famous words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," French for "This is not a pipe." The idea is that a painting of a pipe is not an actual pipe. It's just a representation, kind of like Mica. The metaphor here -- that a digital human no matter how realistic will never be an actual human -- is obvious, but it's still appreciated.

Surrealist artwork at a tech demo with a twist of philosophy? Man, these are my type of people.

Mica, though, isn't just there to play with my mind. She's also a glimpse into the future of AI assistants a project Magic Leap calls Aya. Instead of just executing tasks like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple's Siri, Mica is meant to be more self-aware, perceptive and able to understand cultural context.

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A giant chair sits outside the very first Magic Leap Con developer conference.

Patrick Holland/CNET

For example, if you walk into a dark room, Mica could detect this and turn the lights on for you without you having to tell her to do so. She can also seemingly read your expressions thanks in part to cameras on the Magic Leap One headset. If you see something in the real world that makes you happy, a loved one for example, Mica can learn that and remember that context for future interactions. Let's see Alexa and Siri do that.

Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony Abovitz says that eventually Mica could be your therapist, teacher or social worker. For example, you might come home and tell her all your problems, and she might suggest what you should do.

"Mica is one of our most ambitious things," he says. "You can extend her intelligence capability, but she'll also learn about you."

Mica reminds me of the character Joi from Blade Runner 2049, who is a holographic human-like companion to the replicant hunter K. I mention this to Abovitz and he says the movie underestimates what's going to happen by 2049 and that such technology will be a reality much sooner.

The promise of what Mica could mean for our future made her the most exciting thing I experienced at Magic Leap Con. She represents the first dot in a long dotted-line that connects our current technological climate to one that we've dreamed about in books, films and comic books. Now let's hope that Abovitz and his misfit company of storytellers can make it happen.

For another take on a Magic Leap experience take a look at fellow editor Scott Stein's story about the game Seedling by Insomniac Games.